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The Boston Phoenix Busting Out

Julia Roberts stacks up favorably as Erin Brockovich

By Peter Keough

MARCH 20, 2000:  In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts is stacked. From the opening scene you wonder, where did these come from? Trussed up in her Erin Go Bra, sheathed in a tight, tacky blouse with a plunging neckline, tarted out in a mini-skirt, big hair, and chunky jewelry, and flaunting a brassy, backtalking attitude, Roberts intimidates as the real-life working-class mama of the title who took on a polluting utility company and won the biggest direct-action lawsuit ever. Erin director Steven Soderbergh, on the other hand, seems stifled. You wonder, where did he go? No longer showing off his quirky razzmatazz as in the big-budget Out of Sight, or playing games with chronology and editing as in the little indie The Limey, he's receded from the screen to allow his busty heroine to take charge.

Not that this is such a bad thing. As a story, Erin Brockovich is as flat as its namesake is otherwise. Like most based-on-real-life dramas, it lacks a cogent final act; it's like A Civil Action taken over by So You Want To Be a Millionaire. The film becomes, by default, a character piece, and Erin is some character, affording Roberts the grist for perhaps her best performance in a budget-stretching if not range-stretching career.

At first her appeal is that of the salt-of-earth underdog crushed by the elitist rich and entitled. A single, twice-divorced mother of three, she's seen fumbling through a job interview for which she's inappropriately dressed. Then she drives her three-tone clunker into traffic and gets blindsided by a Jaguar jumping the light (the use of a long take in long shot is a reminder of Soderbergh the stylist). In short order she enlists a lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney, who has a lot more chemistry with Roberts than did Hugh Grant in Notting Hill), to sue the driver, testifies in court (again inappropriately dressed, despite the neck brace), loses her cool, and loses the case -- which leaves her once again unemployed and owing $18,000 in medical expenses.

Her problem, it's clear, is one of appearances -- even Ed dismisses her as troublesome white trash and doesn't return her phone calls. He can't ignore her, though, when she shows up in his office, hires herself as a secretary, sticks her nose in a routine-seeming real-estate case file that includes some alarming medical records, and on her own puts together an industrial-pollution complaint against Pacific Gas and Electric that eventually involves some 600 plaintiffs and a $333 million settlement.

Roberts's penchant for getting the best lines and putting her hoity-toity nay-sayers in their place does grow tiresome -- there's a limit to how many brassy, crowd-pleasing speeches and smart-ass retorts you can get away with. But just as Soderbergh invisibly shapes the movie, so do his hapless male characters keep the overbearing spitfire in check. Along with the long-suffering Ed, there's George (Aaron Eckhart, making up for the macho shitheads he's played in Neil Labute's In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors), the biker next door, who offers to babysit Erin's kids and ends up playing the neglected wife, left at home and nagging "spouse" Erin for placing career and ideals before family.

In such tossaway but authentic glimpses of class and gender conflict, Erin surpasses A Civil Action. Soderbergh is also able to avoid that film's major flaw -- its lack of empathy for the victims -- because his protagonist is one of them. A reaction shot of Roberts looking at a little girl with cancer has a lot more oomph than one of Travolta in a $2000 suit doing the same, especially after we've seen Erin weep on a cell phone as George tells her how her youngest daughter said her first words.

That scene could easily have been mucked up with sentimentality, but Soderbergh and Roberts pull it off. Tougher to manage is the ending, which focuses on a large figure on a check. Not as large as the one Roberts got for playing the part, but big enough to alienate those who had come to identify with Brockovich as the unspoiled hero of the working class. Harsh though it may seem to say, and contrary to the way things worked out in real life, this film would have been more satisfying if we'd see Erin go broke.


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