YOU ARE POWERLESS AGAINST her charms. No matter how you fight, you are overwhelmed by her smile, her legs, her Barbie-like figure, and her winning personality. At least that's the reaction from everyone who comes into contact with Erin Brockovich's eponymous heroine, played by Julia Roberts. "I'm great with people," she says with uncertain conviction; after all, she's unemployed and twice-divorced, the single parent of three small children. Her statement rings only half-true. When turned down for a job, her radiant smile and self-confidence snap off like a lightbulb. On the other hand, she fast-talks her way into a clerical position at the down-at-the-heels SoCal law firm that just blew her personal injury suit. Ed (Albert Finney) feels guilty and hires her, without any idea what mischief she'll cause in his file room.
directed by Steven Soderbergh
with Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, and Aaron Eckhart
opens March 17 at Metro, Meridian, Oak Tree
When Erin discovers that a small desert community of working-class families is subject to toxic groundwater contamination, she becomes their champion: St. Erin in a Wonderbra, stiletto heels, and skin-tight skirts. Roberts' hemlines haven't been this short since Pretty Woman (1990), another Cinderella story now being retold like A Civil Action. This plot, however, is based on an actual 1993-96 California lawsuit. But director Steven Soderbergh gets to deploy his star as both sex symbol and intrepid paralegal. We laugh at Erin's wildly inappropriate outfits, while she shrewdly leverages her cleavage to get information from reluctant sources.
Roberts plays the blunt earthiness of her character for all it's worth. You can't accuse her of scenery chewing, although the part is certainly overwritten. She's got the kind of role once assigned to Sally Field: blue-collar, plainspoken decency prevailing against the odds. Erin's smart white trash, a loose cannon, a spitfire, a firecracker—in other words, the shtick gets tiresome. You wish Soderbergh had cut a few more of her speeches and at least some of the predictable legal roadblocks in this overlong feel-good movie.
UNDERNEATH, HOWEVER, Brockovich redeems its inevitable triumphs and clich鳮 For starters, Roberts is at her best in a film where she can snarl, "I'm not talking to you, bitch!" at a condescending co-worker. She's believable on the attack, not as a victim (recall Sleeping with the Enemy), but also convincing in her moments of self-doubt. Erin becomes so engrossed in her case that she entrusts her children to a gentle biker/ babysitter (the fine Aaron Eckhart of In the Company of Men). When she calls him to hear about her youngest kid's progress for the day, the anguish of a working mother separated from her child is genuine and affecting.
Since the David-vs.-Goliath outcome of the suit is a given, Soderbergh wisely avoids the usual courtroom table-thumping. In his most conventional mainstream film to date, he slyly identifies Erin with the Andie MacDowell character from his 1989 indie breakthrough sex, lies and videotape. That picture also told the indirect story of one woman's gradual empowerment, of a heroine who defies expectations and obvious choices in men. Soderbergh also retains much of the handheld camera and studiedly "normal" look of scenes from last year's underappreciated The Limey, letting the sun wash over bleak locations and ramshackle houses.
Well-made in its details and well-acted in its supporting roles, Brockovich is finally Roberts' movie. She's the star who sells the tickets. To her credit, then, she hasn't insisted—as any star can—on making her character completely victorious or completely likable. Erin's volatile personality is both her strength and her weakness; she can't help blurting out what's on her mind, and her zeal can seem self-righteous and off-putting. Even as we cheer for her, we know she could defeat herself at any moment.