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Erin Brockovich

Ms. Roberts Goes to Town

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Written by Susannah Grant

With Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger, Cherry Jones

I used to be really grateful for the existence of Julia Roberts. Her presence in a movie was a certain sign that the film would be reasonably well acted, written, and directed, sufficiently diverting and pleasant -- as well as being pointless and, ultimately, a waste of time: the perfect example of a Hollywood assembly line production.

Director Steven Soderbergh is just about the opposite: his independent films (like the recent The Limey) are tonal poems, placing much more emphasis on mood and separate moments than on the cohesive narrative. It’s only when he is working in a studio system (Out of Sight) that his films acquire the necessary energy and narrative drive.

The pairing of these two for Erin Brockovich felt rather risky, but it works marvels. The film takes from the star and the director their strongest points and uses them to complement each other, creating a movie where story and characters matter, where visuals are handsome and stylized at the same time, and where Roberts manages to exude both appeal and hostility.

The story is a familiar one: it is based on true events, and easily fits into the standard mold of a courtroom drama. The title character is a jobless twice-divorced mother of three, with pretty much no marketable skills and a very sharp tongue. Desperate for some kind of income, Erin practically forces herself into a menial job at a law company, headed by aging lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney). She has to deal with a rather mysterious case about a real estate deal, which very soon acquires alarming implications.

Yes, we’ve seen this story of a crusading lawyer taking on a large hostile company before (the last time being A Civil Action) -- but Soderbergh manages to make just about every shot come alive with things wondrous and unexpected. Just witness the early shot of Erin driving away from her unsuccessful job interview: in the hands of a more conventional director, this would be the final shot of an opening sequence, with no point of its own. Here, the camera angle and the editing rhythm are quite as clichÉd, lulling the audience into the sense of familiarity. But the shot concludes with a marvelous jolt, a wildly unexpected twist; a rare film can subvert clichÉs so effectively. The rest of the film continues subverting clichÉs: Erin Brockovich is a courtroom drama without a single courtroom scene, with a riveting conflict but without a single stick-figure villain.

And Soderbergh continues this throughout the movie, not only creating many moments that burst with energy, but also the sense of that wonderful excitement when the viewers are just about dying from curiosity to find out what happens next. I should also credit this narrative pull to Susanna Grant’s witty screenplay: it’s fun and dramatic and chock-full of brilliant lines. It is also a detailed character study, a fascinating multi-faceted portrayal of several complex individuals. There’s a small scene in a restaurant when Erin orders lunch for her children and only coffee for herself: there is a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, flash of recognition between her and the waitress. (One of the film’s biggest surprises comes during the final credits: this waitress is played by the real Erin Brockovich in a well-placed cameo.)

And Julia Roberts is absolutely and entirely perfect for this part. It is anything but a soft and cuddly performance: her character is hostile and brittle, an incontrovertible misanthrope with withering contempt for authority. The way Roberts manages to convey all this and at the same time show Erin’s utter vulnerability is nothing short of fascinating, as is her delivery of many great lines. She also looks great in a series of rather skimpy outfits, but this is merely an added bonus.

Even when the film goes for obvious (Erin’s relationship with a friendly biker next door), it manages to salvage the familiar story thread with a single narrative twist. This particular storyline would be a total waste of time, but the fact that the gender roles are reversed makes it more bearable; its resolution is weak, though (the ending, in general, is a bit on the obvious side).

As a result we have a genre film which combines so many genres (courtroom drama, mystery, relationship and character study, a satire, a wish-fulfillment fable) into a solidly entertaining film, crowd-pleasing in the best sense of the word. Erin Brockovich is similar to the films Frank Capra used to make; I haven’t heard that much applause during the screening for quite a while.