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Erin Brockovich

Underqualified, underdressed and increasingly desperate, Erin Brockovich opens the film with her name on it pleading for a skilled job she can sense is not going to be hers.

No, she says, she has no actual medical training, but she does have three kids. She's great with people, and a fast learner, too. And she's always been interested in science, to the point of once being "madly in love with geology." Doesn't all that count for anything?

Not yet it doesn't, but before "Erin Brockovich" is over those qualities will surface as major players in this irresistible, hugely satisfying feminist fairy tale that turns "Norma Rae" into the protagonist of "A Civil Action" and makes us believe it.

Based on the true story of a woman the world didn't take seriously who empowered herself by helping others gain justice, "Erin Brockovich" does more than chronicle the rebirth of a downtrodden individual. It serves as a career milestone for director Steven Soderbergh, writer Susannah Grant and, most of all, star Julia Roberts.

With films collectively hitting a worldwide gross of $2 billion, Roberts is arguably the most successful--and certainly most highly paid--of contemporary actresses. Yet there is the sense about "Erin Brockovich" that this is the part Roberts has long been looking for. It's a role that allows the actress, like her character, to use her allure for a good cause, to put her undeniable star qualities, her great gift for humor, empathy, romance and vulnerability, at the service of a character with real texture.

Make no mistake, this is very much of an old-fashioned crowd-pleasing diva part, allowing Roberts to laugh and bawl, be sensitive and take no prisoners, but it also makes points about corporate malfeasance, self-esteem and the place of women in society that fluffier scenarios want no part of. Long determined to be taken seriously as an actress, Roberts has kissed a lot of frogs (wouldn't everyone like to forget "Mary Reilly"?) on the way to this satisfying triumph.

As to director Soderbergh, who started with the justly celebrated "sex, lies, and videotape" and then went all over the place, his career has been no one-way rocket either. But two years ago, with the exceptional George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez vehicle "Out of Sight," he revealed an unlooked-for talent that's on display here as well.

What Soderbergh can do as well as anyone is bring restraint, intelligence and subtlety to mainstream material, and what a difference that makes. To infuse an essential sense of unforced reality into stories that sound formulaic is to walk quite a fine line, and Soderbergh's gift for that, combined with Roberts' stardom, should finally supply the major box-office success that eluded him with "Out of Sight."

Uniting that film and this one (and what hampered the clumsily written but well-directed one that came between them, "The Limey") is the presence of a strong and beautifully structured script.

Writer Grant (helped by an uncredited polish from Richard LaGravenese) has presented strong women before in "Pocahontas" and "Ever After." But this script has more of a sense of life and it's especially adroit in placing believable and well-timed obstacles in the path of its inevitable resolution. In fact, given that the film's ad line ("She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees") effectively gives away the entire plot, it's amazing how much drama and pins-and-needles worry the film manages to wring from a foregone conclusion.

Helping Soderbergh realize this script's potential are top-of-the-line people on both sides of the camera, including veteran independent film cinematographer Ed Lachman, five-time Oscar-nominated editor Anne V. Coates and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, who has had enormous fun creating clothes for a character who is not afraid of a little exposure.

For though her moral fiber couldn't be more spotless if she were played by Julie Andrews, Erin Brockovich does not dress like a saint. In fact, with her big hair, tiny miniskirts, 3-inch heels and an encyclopedic knowledge of the uses of cleavage, she looks more like a hooker than the character Roberts played in "Pretty Woman."

Erin is also in the habit of speaking truth to power, of saying whatever comes into her mind to whoever's in her line of fire. "Twothings aggravate me," she claims in something of an understatement, "being ignored and being lied to." Roberts is especially adept at taking advantage of Erin's gift for devastating one-liners, none of which can be repeated in a family newspaper.

One of the themes of "Erin Brockovich" is that appearances can be deceiving, so we know at once that Erin is a woman of sterling qualities. Yes, she's twice-divorced, $17,000 in debt with $74 in the bank, but Roberts' presence makes us implicitly believe it's only a matter of time until the world understands that under those skimpy clothes is a smart, hard-working, self-reliant woman just waiting to be gainfully employed.

That employment was looking chancy until Erin came into contact with the majesty of the law as personified by Los Angeles attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney). He represents her in a personal injury lawsuit that doesn't turn out well, and because Ed's the only potential employer she knows, Erin lays siege to his office until a barely entry-level job is forthcoming.

Finney's role is largely that of Roberts' straight man, reacting with looks of horror at her unpredictable shenanigans. Still, the importance of Finney to the film's success shouldn't be underestimated. A well-schooled veteran, he brings integrity, stature and a sense of humor to the role of audience surrogate, never too blasé to be flummoxed by what Erin is up to.

The other man in Erin's life is George ("In the Company of Men's" effective Aaron Eckhart), a motorcycle hunk with enough skin art to necessitate a credited Tattoo Designer. George not only lives next door to Erin, he's her masculine don't-trust-your-eyes mirror image, someone who under all that leather has the temperament of a caring nanny eager to watch her children while she attempts to save the world.

Early on in her filing work at Ed Masry's office, Erin comes across some pro bono work he's doing involving residents of the Mojave Desert town of Hinkley. They're all getting sick and the mammoth PG&E corporation, the place's biggest employer, suspiciously claims to have nothing to do with it. Intrigued, Erin convinces Ed to let her look into the situation, and soon enough she is using her people skills and interest in science, not to mention her world-class flirting ability, to get at the heart of the problem and convince the townsfolk to let her and the lawyers do something about it.

"Erin Brockovich" is helped, as was "Out of Sight," by excellent acting down to its smallest roles. Finely cast by Margery Simkin, the script was strong enough to attract talents like Cherry Jones and Marg Helgenberger to supporting but pivotal roles as townspeople and is obviously much the stronger for it. There are also a pair of amusing cameos, one by the real Erin Brockovich as a waitress who waits, in effect, on herself, and the other by producer Michael Shamberg, convincing as an untrustworthy corporate attorney.

Though the publicity material huffs and puffs about Erin being a role model for the new millennium, in fact what's most exciting about this film is how old-fashioned it is at its core. It uses standard Hollywood building blocks like big stars and a Cinderella story line laced with laughter and tears and reminds us why they became standard in the first place. More than anything, it reminds us how much intelligent entertainment value there can be in traditional material, if only someone has the wit to realize it and the skill to get it out.

MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: Brockovich is a torrent of profanity.

'Erin Brockovich'

Julia Roberts: Erin Brockovich

Albert Finney: Ed Masry

Aaron Eckhart: George

Marg Helgenberger: Donna Jensen

Cherry Jones: Pamela Duncan

Peter Coyote: Kurt Potter

Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures present a Jersey Films production. Director Steven Soderbergh. Producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. Written by Susannah Grant. Executive producers John Hardy, Carla Santos Shamberg. Cinematographer Ed Lachman. Editor Anne V. Coates. Production design Philip Messina. Music Thomas Newman. Costumes Jeffrey Kurland. Art director Christa Munro. Set decorator Kristen Toscano Messina. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.