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Celebrating a new American masterpiece

By Ray Pride

MARCH 20, 2000:  "Erin Brockovich" is a joy and a thrill from start to finish. This is my kind of perfection.

Anyone who cares about what large-scale American movies should aspire to already knows the name Steven Soderbergh. The fine, intensely analytical "sex, lies and videotape" was his first feature, but think of his eclectic choices of the last two years alone: "Out of Sight," "The Limey," and now the remarkable "Erin Brockovich," the quintessential, pluperfect Julia Roberts star vehicle that you will respect in the morning, but will also laugh, cry, think and marvel at as you watch. Roberts goes beyond escapism here, and the results are sweet.

The story sounds like genre stuff, with familiar elements composed with immaculate taste and exacting talent. Ah! An inspirational tale! Based on a true story! A twice-divorced single mother with three young children, no schooling and no prospects, discovers her true abilities. TV-movie stuff, you might say. No, no, no. And there will be lazy comparisons to "Norma Rae," "Chinatown," "A Civil Action." Forget all that. Don't even fret about the plot. Susannah Grant's script, a comedic rendering of very serious stuff, satisfies or gratifies at most every turn.

This movie is a gem: exhilarating, poignant, stirring, heartfelt, hilarious, profane, gorgeously made. Soderbergh's knack is unassuming craft, unshowy technique, a love of actors and the fame and the ideal, ideally terse number of frames before the next cut. I could go on about his studious application of the jumpcut; his rigorous use of a particular style of lap dissolve to show passage of time echoes Kubrick's similar usage in "The Shining"; I could write about how cinematographer Ed Lachman carves out characteristic chunks of Angeleno light and shadow. And this is not to forget the other hands: veteran editor Anne V. Coates, the indispensable Thomas Newman's judiciously parceled out score; Jeffrey Kurland's outrageous costume designs. This movie is a glossary of craft that could serve as a semester's study for film students.

But Soderbergh has disarming wit and he loves actors. He knows how to use Roberts' kill-'em-dead smile and how to use her large, brimming eyes to indicate sadness or fear, and how to make her seem human while remaining a larger-than-life star. (But he does not merely coast on her copious dazzle.) Look at the shots he selects to indicate the shifts of mood in Aaron Eckhart's sometimes-boyfriend character. (A simple squint of the eyes can tell all.) And, too, the stunning, stunning use of the great character actor Tracey Walter. Erin even verbalizes what we have thought he might be up to in each scene we see him in, and once Walter's character tells Erin his story, you will marvel at this splendid melancholy of this man's performance and Soderbergh's tenderness.

And Soderbergh loves storytelling. This still-young director is the true and proper measure of a craftsman: he doesn't let his facility get in the way of his art. His films are a thrilling blend of This Is How We Live Now and This Is How We Remember (both our lives and the stories that our culture tells us).

To distinguish the style of this movie from that of the directors of other recent American movies that have stunned me, this is not the head-rush of David Fincher, not the storminess of Michael Mann or the nerve-jangle of Tom Tykwer. "Erin Brockovich" partakes of a particular economy and elegance that respects and elevates the elements of genre and Hollywood narrative classicism. He's following a path like that of the legendary Howard Hawks -- but enough with the comparison and contrast. Soderbergh follows his own plans and purposes. I love "The Underneath," a film that sent him on one of his periodic forays into intense self-scrutiny. When I spoke to him about that film, I was shocked and thrilled by his willingness to go over each and every detail of what he thought was right and wrong about that, his films that came before, his life. That nakedness, that questing intelligence, is in full, mature flower now. Soderbergh is a master and "Erin Brockovich" is the sweetest of masterpieces -- a large-hearted, affirmative, generous American studio picture that is uncompromised. A crowd-pleaser, indeed. Its great subversion is that audiences who embrace this film in return will not give a shit about a single thing I just wrote. They will love it for its love of all that is luminous about Julia Roberts, for its fresh depiction of an aimless, put-upon soul finding purpose, for its knowledge of the costs of doing good, for knowing right from wrong and for saying, yes, You Must Change Your Life. And You Can.


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