Erin Brockovich (2000)
I usually don't like Julia Roberts in anything - Pretty Woman notwithstanding - but I can safely say that she's pretty darned good in this, and dare I say it, endearing. Oscar worthy? Probably not - I think Ellen Burstyn was still robbed for her turn in Requiem for a Dream - but it is, in my humble opinion, Roberts' best performance to date.
Based on a true story, Roberts plays the eponymous Erin Brockovich, a single mother of three with a foul mouth and no qualifications struggling to find employment. She eventually lands a job as an assistant at a law firm run by a man named Ed Masry (Albert Finney). At the same time she enters into a relationship with her friendly biker neighbour George (Aaron Eckhart). Things get interesting when she begins to investigate a case involving the residents of a small town getting sick, and discovers that an energy company nearby has been polluting the local water supply. She then starts a campaign to get the company to compensate the victims, and Masry's firm initiates legal action. A David vs. Goliath story unfolds, one in which Erin has to rally the townspeople together, keep her company committed to the case, and deal with being away from her kids while an increasingly resentful George takes care of them.
This is, I suppose, feel good filmmaking at its finest - if you're in any doubt as to the outcome, you haven't watched enough movies. It's designed to be moving and inspirational as our heroine defies the odds at every turn, rises above her social status and becomes a respected figurehead for her cause. Yeah, it's fairly by the numbers and apart from Erin the rest of the characters are sketchy at best, but it works despite the prosaic writing. And I think that's partly because of the character and the lengths she goes to (how much of this is real I don't know), but mostly it's because of the way Roberts plays her as a completely irreverent and tenacious woman who simply refuses to back down. She's endearing and ultimately great in the role (Roberts should play foul mouthed more often), and so is Albert Finney; the two play off of each other perfectly. Aaron Eckhart does a fair job, but his appearances and impact on the story are fairly minimal. Also worth mentioning are the minor roles, primarily the townsfolk, that are very well cast and convincing across the board.
The film gets a little repetitive after a while and probably runs on a bit too long, but it still held my interest all the way through to its somewhat abrupt climax. The only thing that really took me out of the film were the sometimes overblown for comedic effect scenes where Erin outdoes someone or proves herself; it seemed to be trying too hard to show how awesome she was - such as in her little 'duel' with the other lawyer's assistant - which felt completely unnecessary and a little smug.
Overall, a very good film and worth seeing. Not exceptional in any way, but it avoids feeling bland and generic despite its subject matter (see: A Civil Action) and is consistently entertaining. Roberts' detractors like me will probably be surprised to find her delivering a winning performance. I'd rate 'Erin Brockovich' up there with director Steven Sodebergh's other mainstream films like the Ocean's series; they're not brilliant, but they're well made and engaging.