Movies are wonderful things because they teach us truths about big important issues like war, illness and our place in the universe. Sometimes they also teach us truths about more petty things, such as wardrobes. Among the many amazing things movies have taught me over the years is that if you’re a woman on the big screen, there is no dress too tight, no bodice too skimpy and no shoes too impractical to do anything from scaling tall buildings in a single bound to outrunning the bomb going off just a few feet behind you. Many are the times I have watched a female character fleeing for her life and wondered why she doesn’t kick off the heels already and go barefoot, but apparently my advice isn’t necessary because I have yet to see anyone to get captured due to flimsy footwear. (Of course, it also helps to have a male costar pulling her along like airport luggage when she’s escaping the bad guys.) In “Erin Brockovich,” a whistleblower movie based on a true story, Julia Roberts, the heroine, manages to get justice and do so wearing a series of truly revealing outfits. In such movies starring men (example: Matt Damon in “The Informant!”) they get to uglify themselves to match the real life person, but as it happens, the real Erin really does (or did) dress this way. So there, everyone who says you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, cinematically speaking.
In “A Civil Action,” John Travolta’s real life character, an attorney who handles a case involving sick kids and contaminated water, goes broke in his quest, but that’s not an issue for Julia in “Erin Brockovich.” At the start, Julia’s a flat-broke single mom with three young kids, no job and no likely prospects. This makes it kind of tricky to find daycare and even lunch out in a diner (where she’s served by the real-life Erin). Things get even dicier after she’s injured in a car accident and hires what she considers a highly incompetent small-town lawyer (Albert Finney) who isn’t much help in securing justice. However, he does reluctantly offer her an office job, where she quickly finds out that what Reese Witherspoon’s father in “Legally Blonde” told her about lawyers is accurate: that they’re “boring and ugly.” Surprisingly the staff isn’t too keen on making someone who looks like Julia dresses feel at home. However, Julia perseveres, especially as she has managed to find better child care in the form of amiable biker guy Aaron Eckhart who has recently moved next door and may want something more from her.
Soon after starting, Julia becomes intrigued when she’s out traipsing in the middle of nowhere in a halter top and short shorts, and stumbles upon a community of unsophisticated but likeable folks who report that their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric, is amiably paying their medical tests, even though a surprising number of them seem to have developed cancer and other fatal conditions. A light goes on because obviously, this seems a little too thoughtful. Perhaps – just perhaps – there might be an ulterior motive? You never can tell.
Eventually, Julia works out that the high cancer rate in both kids and adults is probably related to a harmful chemical that’s plentiful in the water supply – including their backyard swimming pools. With Albert and his crew, she assembles a legal case against the nasty bigwigs (mostly played by actors you haven’t heard of except for perhaps Peter Coyote). And eventually, the good guys win. As whistleblower movies go, “Erin Brockovich” is excellent, as long as perhaps you don’t own a pool your kids spend lots of time in.