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To Erin Is Human: Julia Roberts plays a tough single mom with a single-minded legal crusade in 'Erin Brockovich.'

Always Right

Julia Roberts overshadows quietly effective legal thriller 'Erin Brockovich'

By Richard von Busack

THE SAYING GOES that in Hollywood they prefer films about attractive people with attractive problems, and the Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich is a perfect example of the proverb. Erin Brockovich is a true story about a foul-mouthed, tough mom of three who uncovered a PG&E water-poisoning case in Southern California. Once it was proved that the company had knowingly dumped hexavalent chromium into the ground water, the utility company was found liable for a sum so large--well, so large that it even looked like a large sum to PG&E.

The film starts with Brockovich (Julia Roberts) failing to get a settlement after an auto accident. She forces her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), to give her a secretarial job to square things. In between duties, she discovers the water-poisoning suit. It's a pro-bono case that's been back-burnered in anticipation of a quick settlement. Almost single-handedly, Erin gets the case into the courts, even without a law degree.

In atmosphere, emphasis and timing, this is a well-built, upbeat story about a horrific tragedy. Director Steven Soderbergh seems likely to have his first hit, after a fascinating string of little-seen films (the most accessible being his undiscovered treat Out of Sight). Women, famished for strong female characters, will probably love Erin Brockovich. Soderbergh's use of hand-held camera, natural lighting and live sound is the last thing you expect from a Julia Roberts movie. Susannah Grant's script explains the nature of the cover-up plainly, and what she doesn't tell, Soderbergh shows. The cast looks like people you'd see on a bus, and the locations are authentic. Finney, who is delightful, shows a crumbling core under his sternness; he's in smelling distance of retirement and isn't ready to take on any crusades.

In its realistic style, Erin Brockovich is the kind of film that only gets made if a star loves it. Roberts plainly did. The problem is that she injures the movie with her love, turning up the volume on Erin into a big star performance. At best, a movie star can distill the hopes of the audience, creating an image of one's better self--the way you want to be and think you ought to be. At worst, a movie star is a person who is always right, and that's the way Roberts plays Erin, and that's what mutes my enthusiasm for this film. She's always right, right to neglect her children, right to swear at the people she works with, right to bully her boyfriend (Aaron Eckhart). Throughout the movie, there's never a moment in which Erin's not in the right, or even a moment in which we're allowed to think that if she turned down her personality a little, her goals might still be accomplished. I suppose women are accustomed to this 110 percent righteousness when male movie stars indulge in it. Erin Brockovich is sauce for the goose, but I don't like that sauce when the gander wallows in it, either.

Erin Brockovich (R; 126 min.), directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Susannah Grant, photographed by Edward Lachman and starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney, opens Friday.

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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