2000 in Film

ERIN BROCKOVICH: A relaxed but powerful American star-vehicle (2000 in Film #11)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 17th, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich was the first true success story of the year 2000. Not only was it heavily critically appreciated, with a celebrated and eventually Oscar-winning performance from Julia Roberts, it was also a remarkable commercial hit, netting a quarter of a billion dollars world wide and in the top 15 box office films, globally, of the entire year.

It was, in a very real sense, a trend-setter in that regard. This is Roberts at the very peak of her game as an A-list Hollywood icon, able to open a film on both her name and that of the character she portrays in this simple but effective David vs Goliath story, or as Albert Finney’s lawyer Ed Masry puts it “David vs Goliath’s entire family”, given extra weight and depth by its strong through-line of female empowerment. This isn’t just a gift of a role for an actor like Roberts, it’s also a charm of a character; a real-life, genuine modern heroine who fought the system and won, a tale director Steven Soderbergh and writer Jennifer Grant never embellish. It’s a remarkable story enough based on the facts.

For Erin Brockovich to make such a powerful dent in the global box office attests to multiple things at the turn of the century; the continued, key importance of star wattage to open a movie (Tom Hanks would pull a similar trick later in the year with Cast Away), a clear audience appetite for female-driven, progressive cinema, and indeed at this stage the desire for more than just rinse and repeat sequels. In the age just before the true birth of the franchise picture beyond certain cult sub-genres, Erin Brockovich is proof that true-life pictures with the right combination of talent in front of and behind the camera, strong word of mouth based on quality, and perhaps a reactive element against the emptier big-budget blockbuster could make bank. 

It undoubtedly paved the way for the mid-2000’s fusion of pop-culture blockbuster and auteur-driven drama as typified by Christopher Nolan and, indeed, Soderbergh himself. Erin Brockovich’s legacy is a strong one.

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2000 in Film

THE NEXT BEST THING: A glossy, ham-fisted, non-romance (2000 in Film #9)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 3rd, John Schlesinger’s The Next Best Thing

It is fair to say that the first weekend in March of 2000 was a slim one in terms of new releases, which accounts for why John Schlesinger’s The Next Best Thing was both the most profitable movie and at the same time failed to ultimately make a profit, just falling shy of recouping its modest budget.

Everyone involved almost certainly imagined it would do better. Madonna was headlining as Abby, a New Age yoga instructor in sunny California who falls in love with her gay best friend Robert, played by Rupert Everett—basking in the glow of success in My Best Friend’s Wedding, where he essentially played the same kind of character. It must have seemed like box office alchemy, indeed Madonna’s previous film Evita probably remains her most successful. Throw in one of the most celebrated transatlantic directors of the 60’s & 70’s in Schlesinger and what we should have ended up with was a charming, star-led romantic comedy. What we ended up with was a bizarre, mawkish, messy comedy that veers wildly into a dramatic final act lifted from an entirely different movie.

The Next Best Thing is, to put it mildly, bad filmmaking. The script, written by Tom Ropelewski as an original screenplay called The Red Curtain originally meant to star Richard Dreyfuss & Helen Hunt—proof positive there was a better film lurking underneath somewhere—that eventually was mangled through the Hollywood threshing machine, plonked into the lap of Madonna, and presumably transformed into the strange, worthy beast we ended up getting. Quite what possessed Schlesinger to get on board we will never know – it’s even more tragic that this was the final film he directed before his death in 2003. It’s about as flaccid and ignominious an end the director of Midnight Cowboy or Billy Liar could have had to his career. Nothing, genuinely *nothing*, about this film works in any respect. It is really quite remarkable from that perspective.

The Next Best Thing is also evidence that while Hollywood had an eye on the progressive, liberal structures that are coming to define it twenty years on, its tin ear for how to achieve them was still strong.

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