Examining 'Erin Brockovich' Reviews 15 Years Later, Because Critics Addressed More Than Julia Roberts' Cleavage

It’s been 15 years since the movie came out, but I still remember watching Erin Brockovich for the very first time. Even at a young age I was moved by the idea that women in any situation could change and impact the lives of so many. Of course, there are problems with the film to be sure. Sometimes the film’s smaller moments felt a bit cliched, and sometimes the ogling to which Erin Brockovich was subjected to was hard to swallow. But isn’t the male gaze something women face every day? When the reviews for Erin Brockovich came out at the time of the release, they were mostly positive, with some mixed emotions about the level of importance placed on Julia Roberts’ stardom as opposed to the character of Erin Brockovich. Julia Roberts ended up taking home an Oscar for the role. And surprisingly, most reviews of the film didn’t focus on an obvious point of conversation and critique: Her look.

A memorable element of Erin Brockovich is Julia Roberts' provocative wardrobe. Nonetheless, most reviewers didn't spent too much time discussing the wardrobe or Roberts' exposed body, and for that I am grateful. Many reviews were overwhelmingly positive, as critics were glad to see a strong woman onscreen (amen!). Variety's Todd McCarthy called the film an "exhilarating tale about a woman discovering her full potential and running with it, Erin Brockovich is everything that 'inspirational' true-life stories should be and rarely are."

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McCarthy's review begins not with Roberts' new look for the film but with a praise for director Steven Sodebergh and for Roberts' winning performance. He does have this to say about her appearance:

"Some may carp that if you look like Roberts, especially as she’s tarted up here with eye-popping, cleavage-enhancing tops and miniskirts, a lot of doors will open that might be closed to others. But the film offers sly proof that the star’s showy impersonation isn’t a glamorization at all."

But even here he mentions that real-life Brockovich and Roberts' version are extremely similar. He then forgets the body completely and praises writer Susannah Grant for her female-centric films.

Critic Owen Gleiberman did't mention Roberts' image at all in his review for Entertainment Weekly, aside from stating that Roberts' brings a "flirtatious sparkle" to the role. In fact, most reviews actually talk more about the idea of Erin Brockovich being one of those feel-good, uplifting films that does so well with audiences. And he's not wrong, but that aspect of the movie also rubbed some critics the wrong way, as many mentioned that the film becomes too cliched and too heavily focused on Roberts' star power than the story.

A.O. Scott, writing for The New York Times discusses this phenomenon in his review, stating that the scenes before the "do-goodery" begins are where Sodebergh and Roberts' shine the most, with Roberts in a "minor tour de force" performance. But once Erin Brockovich's luck turns for the better in the film and once she starts investigating her big case, things go south in Scott's opinion. He states:

"Erin Brockovich becomes a doggedly conventional crusader-for-justice Hollywood soap opera, a smooth second-hand amalgam of Norma Rae and Silkwood, with vigorous nods to The Rainmaker and A Civil Action. Who could have foreseen that this most unpredictable of filmmakers could have made a movie so utterly predictable?"

Roger Ebert's review of the film mentions the wardrobe on a few occasions, as he believed it upstaged the film's point: "...The costume design sinks this movie. Roberts is a sensational-looking woman, and dressed so provocatively in every single scene, she upstages the material. If the medium is the message, the message in this movie is sex."

I can completely understand (though may not necessarily agree) with this point of view, and I can also understand and partially agree with Scott's theory that the film gets bogged down in cliched, do-goodery filmmaking (though I believe has enough merit to soar beyond just its cliche moments from its star and its plot). But what I cannot appreciate is insulting comments while trying to prove this point. And that's precisely what the reviewer at CultureVulture does. This is his final verdict on the film:

"Erin Brockovich might become a giant hit – the crowd I saw it with whooped and hollered at every line. It’s the same kind of whooping that could be heard during The Longest Yard and The Bad News Bears, and in every other movie where David turns us on by taking it to Goliath. Erin Brockovich is a Frank Capra fantasy updated for Y2K: it’s Jimmy Stewart in a see-through blouse. But like Erin herself, the movie is one big tease."

Critics are part of the movie landscape, they're necessary and inevitable. To this day, I still admire Erin Brockovich for being a film about a real woman who had such strong convictions, but could also learn (albeit after being a bit stubborn at first) a few things about life. The sex of it all is important to note because Erin is able to embrace her look, but it's not the message of the film. Strong women who can affect real, positive change is the message, and that's what where we should keep the focus.

Images: Universal Pictures (4)