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Erin Brockovich HD-DVD Review

If a director can get one motion picture out in a year that is a hit with both critics and the general public, that is considered a great success. But when they manage to get two all-around pleasing blockbusters within a twelve-month period, then that is something really worth noting. Very few have had this type of double whammy: Francis Ford Coppola had a year like that in 1974 with The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, and Steven Soderbergh had his golden year in 2000 with the narcotics drama Traffic and the Julia Roberts underdog drama Erin Brockovich.

Roberts won her Best Actress Oscar for her turn as the titular character: a twice-divorced, under educated mother of three who manages to finagle her way into a job at the law office run by Ed Marsy (Albert Finney), an attorney Erin hired when she is involved in an auto accident at the beginning of the film. One day, Erin stumbles across some medical records mixed in with some real estate records. Further investigating of the document mix-up leads her to uncover a major cover up by Pacific Gas & Electric, who contaminated a small California town’s water supply with toxic chemicals and then tried to keep the public quiet by paying for their medical bills. The townsfolk are a bit wary at first about going after PG&E, but with equal doses of empathy and persistence (which causes a bit of a strain on her personal life) Erin manages to win them over and get them behind her and Marsy as they take on PG& E.

Were it in the hands of less-capable filmmakers, Erin Brockovich could have wound up being nothing more than a manipulative, preachy and predictable television movie. One you would find on such cable wastelands as the Lifetime Network, only with a big star and healthy budget attached to it. Susannah Grant, writer of such endurance test chick flicks as Catch and Release and 28 Days, wrote the screenplay for Brockovich, and in true Hollywood fashion, her screenplay does follow that predictable path most of Tinseltown’s underdog films undertake: scrappy protagonist goes against the odds to do what they believe in to win or save the day, even if it puts a strain on their personal life.

Being predictable, however, does not always equate into a bad movie. Fortunately, Grant’s screenplay landed in the more than capable hands of Soderbergh (and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, who did doctoring on the script) and a winning ensemble cast, headlined by excellent turns from Roberts (who proved she could do more than romantic comedies with this film), Finney (without whom Roberts would not have come off as good as she did) and Aaron Eckhart as Erin’s understanding yet long-suffering boyfriend. The end result is a film short on sap and long on entertainment.

There were opportunities left and right in Erin Brockovich to bang us over the head with manipulation and messages, but Soderbergh knows when to hold back and let the story and his cast deliver the emotional punch. He also understands that even in a drama such as this one, there is plenty of room for an occasional one-liner to lighten things up just a bit (Roberts and Finney display some excellent onscreen chemistry). It’s a tough act to make a commercial drama such as Erin Brockovich effective without being preachy, gloomy or calculating, but Soderbergh does it with ease, getting the viewer to relate to and cheer on the protagonist without making them feel embarrassed afterwards. Erin Brockovich may feel familiar, but it’s no less winning because of it. Soderbergh’s recent output has been anything but good (Ocean’s 12 & 13? The word “dire” comes to mind), but at least we can enjoy his golden year again on HD-DVD, and hope he returns to that level of quality in the near future.

Universal Home Video has given the nearly eight-year-old film a nice HD-DVD presentation. The 1080p/VC-1 encode handsomely captures the film’s theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio and offers bright colors without being oversaturated, solid black levels and details as sharp as one would expect. I did notice a little bit of compression artifacts here and there, but overall this is a very nice video presentation.

As the film is a mostly dialogue-driven affair, don’t expect Erin to assault you from all sides with its 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. Even so, the sound is nicely handled. Center-channel dialogue is clear; the left and right fronts nicely convey Thomas Newman’s low-key score and the surrounds make their presence known every so often. If there was bass to be had, I didn’t notice it. But once again, you don’t put on a movie like Erin Brockovich to shake loose the foundation of your house.

As was the case with the standard-definition DVD release back in 2000 (I’m a bit amazed that Universal hasn’t milked this film for all its worth with multiple reissues), the supplements on Erin Brockovich are minimal. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Soderbergh was hard at work on Traffic at the time the DVD for Erin was being produced, or perhaps it was just because this wasn’t exactly a story or film that produced copious amounts of behind-the-scenes stuff. Whatever the case may be, a film as popular as this one was got the short end of the stick in terms of supplements — especially in comparison to DVDs of some of Soderbergh’s other work.

The bespectacled director did not sit down to contribute a commentary track for this film, but he did provide some commentary tidbits on the 30 minutes of Deleted Scenes presented on this disc. He explains why the scenes were cut, mostly for pacing or subplot-related issues. I have to say that as far as deleted scenes go, these are actually not all that bad. Would I put them back into the movie? No. The film was long enough at 132 minutes. But they are good enough to give the once-over after seeing the film. The scenes are in good condition and are presented in 16×9 widescreen and 480p standard definition.

The deleted scenes are where the good stuff begins… and ends. The remaining supplements, all two of them, are the working definition of puff pieces: promos put together by film studios to show what a grand old time everyone had making the movie. Yawn. They are presented in 4×3 full-screen and 480p Standard Definition and are in decent enough shape.

Spotlight on Location (15:10) is comprised of interviews with the cast and crew as well the real-life Erin Brockovich (now known as Erin Brockovich-Ellis). A bit of background on the real-life events is also given during this brief behind-the-scenes peek. Erin Brockovich features an all-too brief (four minutes) interview with the real-life Erin, who talks a bit more about her real-life experiences that served as the basis of the film. Ed Marsy, her former boss (he passed away in December of 2005), also contributes a few tidbits as well. It is here that Universal really blew the chance to include a worthwhile extra by not giving us full-length interviews with Brockovich and Marsy and their experiences taking on the corporate big boys.

The film’s Theatrical Trailer (approximately two minutes) is also included and is presented in 4×3 widescreen. It’s not the best trailer in the world, or the worst. It’s just good enough to sell the viewer on the film. Given the film’s grosses at the box office, I would say it did its job well.

Erin Brockovich proved that Julia Roberts was more than just a Pretty Woman and that Steven Soderbergh could make a film that was as much a commercial success as it was a critical one. It may not break any new or original ground cinema-wise, but it tells its story well and involves the viewer without talking down to them at the same time. The video and audio presentations on the HD DVD are big improvements over the original standard-def DVD release, but the thin selection of extras remains the same. If you are a big fan of the film or of Roberts and/or Soderbergh, then I recommend picking it up. Everyone else, give it a rent.

Overall: 7.3

–Shawn Fitzgerald

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