Roberts shines as Soderbergh reinvents the underdog legal drama in 'Erin Brockovich'
Sporting a back-combed, two-tone mane, spike-heeled Candies and the wardrobe of a trailer park tart, Julia Roberts has somehow never been more appealing and charismatic than she is as "Erin Brockovich."
The heroine of inventive auteur Stephen Soderbergh's latest Hollywood-deconstructing dynamo, Brockovich is real-life law office file clerk who in 1993 rallied a small desert town against the Goliath public utility that had for decades knowingly poisoned its water supply.
Brazen, tactless and utterly magnetic in Roberts' increasingly talented hands, this struggling single mom is short on job skills and long on lip. She starts the movie in the middle of a frustrating job hunt in which she keeps giving interviewers a piece of her mind.
When she's whiplashed in a fender bender -- the fault of a misanthropic Mercedes driver -- and loses her personal injury suit, she figures her strip-mall lawyer (Albert Finney) owes her for dropping the ball. So she camps out in his office until he gives her a job -- a fortuitous hiring that leads, incredibly and indirectly, to the largest lawsuit settlement in U.S. history.
While filing papers for a seemingly elementary real estate case, Erin is surprised to discover medical records attached to the litigation and gets curious. Allowed to investigate and learning as she goes, Brockovich discovers a colossal cover-up in which Pacific Gas and Electric has been buying up homes near its power plant in the sagebrush wasteland of Hinkley, California -- a town unusually overflowing with sickly citizens.
The kind of triumphant underdog story commonly prefabricated for cable TV, "Erin Brockovich" is an entertaining wonder for the simple reason that its potentially prosaic, assembly-line anecdotes are turned inside-out by Soderbergh's vivaciously unorthodox direction.
Aided by whimsical, natural dialogue from screenwriter Susannah Grant (who co-wrote the convention-warping Cinderella update "Ever After") Soderbergh artfully navigates a minefield of inherent clichés -- workaholic single mom guilt, Grisham-esque courtroom showdowns -- with such clever cadence and novelty that even these familiar scenes are recast in a refreshingly idiosyncratic mold.
Understanding that the outcome is a foredrawn conclusion, he reinvents the journey and focuses more on people than plot, resulting in a film that pulsates with personality.
Roberts (who has magically worn down my personal aversion to her over the last few years) gives her best performance to date as the irreverent Erin, using everything from channeled antipathy to strategically deployed cleavage in her pursuit of the truth.
Finney is fantastic as her rut-stuck foil, reluctantly revitalized by his new employee's passion for justice, but afraid of a showdown with the kind of deep-pocketed corporate lawyers he knows could eat him for lunch.
Erin's benevolent biker boyfriend (the unrecognizable Aaron Eckhart, "Your Friends and Neighbors") is atypically pithy and emotionally astute. Even the selected representatives of Hinkley's poisoned populace are given memorable weight and individuality.
Ever since "sex, lies and videotape," Soderbergh has traded on exploring what makes his characters tick, and while "Erin Brockovich" may not quite measure up to his more thought-provoking independent fare (last year's revenge drama "The Limey" was cutting-edge cerebral), it's refreshing to see him sublimely reformulate such a stock story using people we come to adore for their peculiarities.
"Erin Brockovich" may be designed to make elicit knee-jerked cheers for the little guy, but it's Soderbergh who deserves the accolades for making a 100-percent Hollywood movie that kicks Hollywood's butt.