Pretty Smart Woman

'Erin Brockovich' is a Hollywood star vehicle that gives Julia Roberts the meatiest role of her career.

March 17, 2000

Let us now praise simple stories well told.

"Erin Brockovich" is so disarmingly, deceivingly straightforward that it's almost jarring. Even more surprising, this unassuming movie comes from Steven Soderbergh, who has lent style and narrative complexity to such films as "Out of Sight" and "The Limey."

Through the intrinsic power of his central character, brought to life by Julia Roberts, in her meatiest role and most accomplished performance yet, he has created the most unexpected movie of a career devoted to counter-intuitive turns: a mainstream Hollywood star vehicle.

From the get-go, "Erin Brockovich" focuses on Roberts' face and rarely lets go, a smart move, considering the face. In the movie's opening moments, Erin is applying for a job as an assistant in a medical office, desperately trying to make a physician look beyond her big hair and legs-up-to-here and recognize that underneath the va-va-voom exterior an incisive mind is at work.

Her pitch doesn't fly, and her day only gets worse when her car is blindsided by a speeding Jaguar. But even though it seems like just another stroke of bad luck for the single mother of three small children, the encounter will change her life -- and the lives of hundreds of people.

After being represented by lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) in her ensuing lawsuit, she winds up working for him. In the course of some routine legal research for a real estate deal between utility company PG&E and a couple in Hinkley, Calif., she happens upon some odd-looking medical bills. That sends her on a journey to tiny Hinkley, where she discovers a town of dying people, most of whom, she comes to suspect, have been contaminated by toxic runoff from PG&E.

There is nothing fancy about "Erin Brockovich," which became a movie because executive producer Carla Santos Shamberg heard about the real-life Brockovich while being treated by her chiropractor (only in L.A., folks).

Soderbergh wisely focuses on two things: the facts of the case and Roberts' star power, here turned on full blast in the service of a gutsy, charismatic character who dresses like a Victoria's Secret model, swears like a stevedore and thinks like a forensic pathologist.

It's a charming, certainly photogenic combination, but Erin is not the unalloyed heroine on a par with the Silkwoods and Norma Raes of the world. With a chip the size of the Ritz on her shoulder, Erin barges through life with her mouth going and her elbows out -- not always the smartest or most endearing M.O.

Still, her earthy humor gives "Erin Brockovich" verve where most David-and-Goliath (or, as Erin says in the movie, "David and Whatshisname") stories get misty-eyed. "They're called boobs, Ed," she deadpans when Masry wonders aloud how she gets so many Hinkley folks to sign on to their class-action case. A feminist heroine for the 21st century, Erin is that most terrifying of female creatures, a smart, attractive woman who wears her sexuality proudly and never apologizes for it.

The legal case is gripping, but Soderbergh never gets mired down in boilerplate courtroom scenes or montages of heroic young clerks pulling all-nighters. (There's only one "We can get these people!" line.) He's more interested in what makes Erin tick, and how her salty, sexy persona affects the people around her. Her disarming honesty and ability to listen make her immediately trusted in Hinkley, where the citizens have only gotten double-talk from PG&E. For all her flashy outfits and spike heels, this is a woman who knows the power of sharing a piece of bundt cake.

Back at the office, however, her fellow paralegals and secretaries treat her with suspicion and outright hostility (not helped by her own condescending attitude). Under the surface of "Erin Brockovich" Soderbergh expertly engages a subtle subtext having to do with class differences and assumptions. It's neatly summed up in one of the movie's most articulate scenes, in which Ed diplomatically suggests to Erin that she "rethink" her wardrobe, which runs to see-through blouses over black bras. "I think I look nice," she says simply. Case closed.

Roberts has long since proven her star wattage, but there has been an actress behind the glare just waiting to get out, even in fluff like "Notting Hill" and "Runaway Bride." Here she clearly revels in the opportunity to bring dimension and expression to a character she seemed destined to play (the real-life Brockovich makes a cameo appearance as a waitress early in the film; clearly the casting of Roberts was not a leap).

What's more, she's found a generous and assured director in Soderbergh, whose simple, linear approach makes such true-life tales as "A Civil Action," "The Insider" and "The Hurricane" look gratuitously baroque by comparison.

"Erin Brockovich" is the kind of movie that gives mainstream Hollywood star vehicles a good name.

`Erin Brockovich'

Starring Julia Roberts

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Rated R (language)

Running time 130 minutes

Released by Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures

Sun score *** 1/2

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