After Sex, Lies and Videotape, director Steven Soderbergh’s career starting sliding and looked like it was going to go from thumbs up to belly up. Then he came back hard with two great movies in two years and laid down the template for his working practice in the future. Which was more or less “one for me, one for them”. The Limey bore the marks of the personal film: offbeat casting (Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda), whacked-out situations, experimental structure. Then there is this. Erin Brockovich tells the David and Goliath story of the busty legal assistant (Julia Roberts plus chest prosthetics) who takes on a corporation that’s polluted a small town’s water supply and ruined the health of nearly everyone in it. It’s classic Hollywood in every sense: a big-name star in a straight-ahead story told without tricks. But what marks out Soderbergh as master of all he surveys are the brilliant performances he wrings from Roberts (not always everyone’s fave, but here she’s a rave) and Albert Finney (always great, here perfect, though it’s not much of a role) and his absolute insistence on subsuming everything – you can almost hear the stars’ agents whining in the background – to the plot. It works, completely. As I write Soderbergh has just announced his retirement from film-making with Side Effects, though on closer examination it seems he’s just decided to stop making films for the Hollywood system. Erin Brockovich reminds us of the time when Hollywood and Soderbergh were a perfect fit.
© Steve Morrissey 2013