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'Erin Brockovich' is Julia Roberts’ best movie yet

By Chris Herrington

MARCH 28, 2000:  Julia Roberts is a movie star. This is not a news flash, of course. But Roberts is not just your typical multimillion-dollar-salary-making, Entertainment Weekly cover-girl kind of movie star. She's something purer and grander than that she's the last true movie star. She's played a prostitute and a writer, a law student and a nurse. But regardless of the role, she is always playing Julia Roberts. This style of acting doesn't get much respect these days people think she's coasting, that she's not a "serious" artist. But Hollywood's greatest screen presences have been those who've developed (or who were simply born with) a fascinating persona, and over the course of a career that's well into its second decade, Julia Roberts has played Julia Roberts almost as well as Cary Grant played Cary Grant and John Wayne played John Wayne. Talented craftspeople like Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster can have the Method; Julia Roberts traffics in magic.

She's the Barbara Stanwyck of her era sexy, smart, feisty, and quick-witted. Like Stanwyck, Roberts seems constantly to be working ahead of her material, as if she's putting on a show that exists beyond whatever movie she's in. Of course, Stanwyck thrived in a Hollywood that afforded her brilliant collaborators in such directors as Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, while Roberts has been stuck with the likes of Garry Marshall and Joel Schumacher. And, unlike the similarly no-nonsense Stanwyck, Roberts has experienced the misfortune of being born to an era where romantic comedies cling to the kind of cheap sentimentality that she seems to have little use for.

But Roberts has evolved in recent years. No longer merely content to display her fabulous charms, lately Roberts has begun to explore and exploit the contours of her persona in a manner that may make her more the Joan Crawford of her era and she had her Mildred Pierce with 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding. That brave comeback film was an allegory of an actress fighting to win back her audience (Dermot Mulroney, suitably bland) from a younger, fresher rival (Cameron Diaz). And it spearheaded a string of other metamovies in Notting Hill (for obvious reasons) and Runaway Bride (itself an allegory for her refusal to do Pretty Woman II). Sure, the former was too precious for its own good, and the latter was an unmitigated disaster that screamed out for the sure, honest hand of a Hawks or Sturges, but Roberts was never less than brilliant, even as the films were falling apart around her.

So it's quite a thrill that Erin Brockovich, Roberts' latest star turn, preserves this new self-awareness while also providing the star with the freshest material and strongest support of her career. Erin Brockovich is, quite simply, the best Julia Roberts movie yet, and, not coincidentally, the first time she's ever worked with a first-rate director.

Like Roberts, director Steven Soderbergh hit the ground running in the late '80s, in his case with the Cannes-winning debut sex, lies and videotape. Since then, Soderbergh has been busy building one of the most compelling resumes in contemporary American cinema, a filmography that ranges from the elegantly accessible Out of Sight to the giddily experimental Schizopolis. Soderbergh flirted with the commercial big leagues with Out of Sight, but Erin Brockovich is total immersion. The result is the kind of crowd-pleasing entertainment that should garner blockbuster box-office, but that also lives up to the demands of Soderbergh's art.

So what's it about? Erin Brockovich is the true story of a down-on-her-luck, ex-beauty queen single mom who gets a job in a small-time law firm and uncovers evidence that leads to the largest direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history, a decision against a huge utility company for poisoning the water in the small California town of Hinkley. In broader terms, Erin Brockovich is a genre movie, or rather a combination of genres. It's a David-versus-Goliath legal drama in the same mold as other recent films like A Civil Action and The Rainmaker. And it's a women's picture, the story of a single mom juggling career and family in a patriarchal society. To the film's credit, it plays its heavy subject matter with great finesse; this is still essentially a comedy.

But really the film is about Julia Roberts. Erin Brockovich is not only Roberts' greatest role, but it's also her greatest metarole. When Erin returns home from the law firm, her new beau (Aaron Eckhart, in his juiciest part since In the Company of Men) asks, "You don't think you're out of your league?" He might as well be a film critic questioning what Roberts is doing attempting this socially conscious Oscar-turn.

Like Julia Roberts herself, Erin Brockovich is a stunningly beautiful woman who is perpetually underestimated. Brockovich is viewed with skepticism by the uptight legal professionals she works with (i.e., far too many film critics and Oscar voters), but is beloved by the regular citizens of Hinkley (the film-going audience at large). It's this latter group that Roberts/Brockovich works for, and, of course, their love couldn't be more deserved.

American Movie is a sad, funny documentary from Chris Smith, a struggling, Milwaukee-based filmmaker. Its subject is Mark Borchardt, another struggling, Milwaukee-based filmmaker. The quixotic Borchardt looks and acts like a character from Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. He's an unkempt alcoholic who sports Iron Maiden T-shirts and still hangs out with his stoner friends from high school, despite the fact that he's a grown man with three kids.

Borchardt's passion is filmmaking. A disciple of George Romero, Borchardt has been making short splatter flicks since high school, but his dream project is Northwestern, a non-horror, autobiographical feature about "rust and decay." An impassioned defense of his friends' alcohol-fueled camaraderie and an elegy for the Springsteenian landscapes of Borchardt's native Midwest, the early footage of Northwestern looks like a mythopoetic Dazed and Confused, like The Last Picture Show for Beavis and Butthead kids.

As American Movie opens, Borchardt has gathered a hodge-podge of film-school students, childhood friends, and amateur actors to begin pre-production on Northwestern. After a few months, Borchardt realizes that he has neither the finances nor organization to really get started on Northwestern, so he lowers his sights. He embarks on the project of completing "Coven," a Night of the Living Dead-inspired horror short that he'd begun years earlier.

One of the significant pleasures of American Movie is its lovingly rendered but honest depiction of a milieu you don't often seen in a feature film. Borchardt's (and Smith's) working class Midwest of suburban slackers, freeway strip malls, wide-open spaces, and Lotto tickets gets its due here. In this way, American Movie acts as a corrective to Fargo that "classic" from the relentlessly smug Coen brothers that seems to have defined the Upper Midwest for too many moviegoers.

A common criticism of American Movie has been that it's a condescending and exploitative examination of a "filmmaker" who amounts to little more than a modern-day Ed Wood. But this strain of criticism seems to have more to say about the class-biases and aesthetic myopia of those leveling the charges than it does about the film itself. In fact, the clips of Borchardt's films shown in American Movie reveal a pretty talented filmmaker.

Those who claim that American Movie is exploitative also miss just how complicit Borchardt is in its creation. Borchardt seems a far more knowing crafter of his hick-stoner persona that most reviewers have been willing to admit he downplays his own intelligence, and the self-deprecating humor that Borchardt draws so many laughs from is endemic to the region and to the milieu. The secret of American Movie is that Borchardt becomes (perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not) both the film's star and uncredited screenwriter. His unmade epic Northwestern is to be a grand statement about his own life, friends, and philosophy but he can't get the money to finish it. So Borchardt does the next best thing; he essentially turns American Movie itself into Northwestern.

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