Films

Firebrand Barbie

Julia Roberts scores in the role of an environmental crusader

Brian D. Johnson March 20 2000
Films

Firebrand Barbie

Julia Roberts scores in the role of an environmental crusader

Brian D. Johnson March 20 2000

Firebrand Barbie

Films

Julia Roberts scores in the role of an environmental crusader

Brian D. Johnson

Erin Brockovich

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

We’ve seen a lot of tough mothers at the movies lately. Susan Sarandon played a white-trash mom who drags her teenage daughter off to California and picks up Mr. Wrong in Anywhere but Here. Janet McTeer did more or less the same thing, but with feeling, in Tumbleweeds. And as a school nurse charged with sexual abuse in A Map of the World, Sigourney Weaver takes her knocks behind bars while her husband minds the kids. But none of these women cuts as wide a swath as the whirlwind played by Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. Based on a true story, this is the tale of a small-town, workingclass mother, twice divorced with three young children, who launches an environmental lawsuit that brings a $30billion (U.S.) company to its knees.

The movie offers an odd marriage of

talents. For American director Steven Soderbergh—known for such deftly understated films as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Out of Sight and The Limey—it marks a departure into a much broader style of entertainment. And the doeeyed Roberts seems an unlikely choice to play a firebrand. But in Soderberghs hands, she delivers the strongest performance of her career.

At first glance, the role looks like a considerable stretch from the Hollywood princesses of Pretty Woman and Notting Hill. But Erin Brockovich is more fairy tale than investigative thriller. Ifs a Cinderella story about an office minion who slays a corporate titan and gets rich in the bargain—an investigative fable. And by all accounts, there is nothing ordinary about the story’s reallife heroine. Brockovich—who appears in the movie as a waitress—is a former beauty queen who liked to dress provocatively on the job and use her sex appeal as a research tool. Think Norma Rae in stiletto heels.

Roberts struts through the movie in a parade of trash couture. And as she works her way through dozens of outrageously revealing getups, her cantilevered cleavage becomes an ongoing sight gag. She deserves a new Oscar

category: best supported actress.

The movie is set in the town of Hinkley in California’s Mojave Desert. As the story begins, Erin is unemployed and desperate. After suffering a car accident and failing to win damages, she persuades her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), to give her a job at his law firm. There, Erin stumbles upon evidence of a coverup involving contaminated water that has caused devastating illnesses in the community. Going door-to-door, Erin signs up more than 600 plaintiffs. In 1993, they eventually settle with PG&E, a private utility, for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history.

Momentous though it may be, the victory seems anti-climactic. Individually, some of the plaintiffs still earned less for contracting terminal cancer than Roberts made for shooting the movie (her usual fee is $20 million). But Erin Brockovich plays as comedy as much as drama. Unlike Silkwoodor The Lnsider, there is nothing terribly sinister going on, no death threats or scary surveillance. The spats between Erin and her crusty boss—portrayed with shambling insouciance by Finney—could have been scripted for Mary Richards and Lou Grant.

The other man in the heroine’s life is George (Aaron Eckhart), her biker boyfriend who lives next door and becomes an unlikely househusband, a male version of the neglected wife. Tenderly played by Eckhart {In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors), he is a wonderful character, a HarleyDavidson dad who holds the fort while Erin is out snooping into fdes and climbing down cisterns.

The script by Susannah Grant {Ever After, Pocahontas) teeters on the edge of Hollywood formula. But it is saved by Soderbergh’s spare direction. Although he takes a linear approach, without the playful flashbacks of his earlier films, his elegant touch is still present. As for Julia Roberts, she is still Pretty Woman, a working girl smiling her way from rags to riches. But this time, the fairy tale rings true. ES]