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Erin Brockovich   B-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Susannah Grant
Cast: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's something you need to know about Erin Brockovich. Something that may shock and horrify you, that goes against every one of my hard-earned cynic's instincts: this movie wouldn't have worked without Julia Roberts.

Gaaa!!! Oh, LORD that hurt to write. And there may be nothing in the pre-publicity to convince you that I'm right. This movie has the eerie tang of so many other wretched Roberts vehicles of the past: the self-righteous smugness of Stepmom, the maudlin pity of Runaway Bride, the sinister moral undertones of Pretty Woman. The story -- excuse me, the true story -- of an unemployed ex-beauty queen who blew the whistle on a major utility company shows every sign of following this bile-inducing trend. But somehow, it manages to produce a moderately good film, and as much as it pains me to admit, Her Toothiness has a great deal to do with it.

Roberts's title character starts the film as a down-on-her-luck mother of three with no jobs and fewer prospects. After losing a personal injury case, she browbeats her mealy-mouthed lawyer-for-hire (Albert Finney) into a job. At first, the position fits her like a burlap sack: her tacky clothes, tart comebacks and willingness to speak bluntly alienate almost every one of her new co-workers. But when she finds medical records and blood samples in an otherwise innocuous real estate file, her instincts send her looking for answers...and right into the biggest case the tiny firm's ever seen.

The case in question, involving a small town's drinking water being poisoned by the nearby Evil Corporation˙, has nothing that a hundred other trial movies haven't covered in detail. If the movie had tried to turn this into A Civil Action or Silkwood, it would have been doomed. But Erin Brockovich is less concerned with extolling the evils of corporate America than in the way it's central character goes about uncovering it. Brockovich goes door to door in the affected town, talking to the disturbingly unaware townsfolk and forming a deep bond of trust with them. In the process, we see a depth to this character that goes beyond her cheap wardrobe and filthy mouth. She cares deeply about the people she's trying to help, and in so doing, manages to reaffirm her own sense of self-worth which she had long thought lost.

It's a precarious balance, and the film constantly threatens to drop into arrogant soccer-mom mode. You're on edge waiting for Roberts' inevitable speech about how important her kids are or how her struggles are somehow more valid than the rest of the world's. But the lecture never quite materializes, leaving us instead with a legitimate look at a well-developed character. You believe in the reality of Erin's emotions, which creates a great deal of sympathy both for her and the movie. Director Steven Soderbergh is canny enough to keep things subtle, letting us connect to Erin without getting drenched in emotional overkill.

But it's Roberts who really shines. The role seems tailor-made for her strengths, allowing her to be humorous, vulnerable, tough and sympathetic without ever making us ill. She inhabits the role completely, and while you never forget that it's a movie star on the screen, you're reminded that Brockovich is indeed a real person, with all the complexities that that entails. It's quite a surprise for those of us who gag at the thought of her -- an all-too-rare revelation that she may have some talent after all.

The rest of the film is a heavily mixed bag. There's some fine supporting performances (notably Aaron Eckhart, as Erin's biker boyfriend), but too many characters have nothing to do except stand around and watch. Soderbergh's direction has a certain pep to it, but lacks the strength of Out of Sight or last year's The Limey; this seems more like a job-for-hire than something he truly believes in. And some of the dialogue tends to pander: there are a few too many scenes of the smart-mouthed Brockovich putting those snooty, high-priced lawyers in their place. All of that pales, however, before the central conceit, and the star who manages to pull it off so well. Without Julia Roberts, this movie is nothing. With her, it's funny, engaging, and ultimately worthwhile. She still has much to answer for (I may never forgive her for I Love Trouble), but Erin Brockovich reminds us that there's still hope. For the sake of the movie-going public, I pray that she can keep it up.

Review published 03.24.2000.

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