From Pretty Woman to gritty woman

Erin Brockovich (15) | Director: Steven Soderbergh | Starring: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney | 133 mins | Trailer
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The Big Picture

In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts gives her most striking performance since Pretty Woman 10 years ago. Let's immediately acknowledge that the work in between hasn't offered much competition. In those 10 years I think I must have seen every single film she's done, and boy, does it make for one sorry CV. Whether she tried straight - Dying Young, Sleeping With The Enemy, The Pelican Brief, Mary Reilly, Conspiracy Theory - or comic - Something To Talk About, I Love Trouble, Everybody Says I Love You - there was always something amiss, in the script, in the conception of her character or in the man she was playing opposite. (My Best Friend's Wedding is a partial exception).

It was tempting to wonder if she could do anything other than doe-eyed vulnerability. Could the sexpot strut and sass of Pretty Woman have been a fluke? Was our love in vain?

Her Erin Brockovich hearteningly suggests it wasn't. Dressed in halter tops that show off her cleavage and miniskirts not much thicker than a belt, she could almost be Pretty Woman's Vivian 10 years on, were it not for the toddler she's always holding on her hip and two more small children who follow in her wake. As a single mom, Erin doesn't have it easy. Twice divorced, she knows she's taken a wrong turning somewhere ("I was Miss Wichita, for Christ's sake!") and she hates having to raise the children in a roach-infested house. She's not educated, but dare to patronise her and she'll bite your head off. Such is her desperation to work, she buffaloes a small-time attorney, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), into giving her a menial job in his office, where her brassy outfits and attitude aren't an instant hit. There's something combative, almost chippy, about Erin, but she's also smart and conscientious, and Roberts' commitment to the role brings out a fully rounded human being.

Based on a true story, and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film unfolds a David-and-Goliath contest whose most recent exemplar is The Insider. Corporate America is once again under the cosh, and multi-million-dollar lawsuits are in the offing. With Masry's permission, Erin begins to investigate what she thinks might be a cover-up at a Pacific Gas & Electric plant in the rural town of Hinkley, California. Many families in the community have been stricken with cancers and other illnesses because the company has been polluting the water with a chemical, Chromium 6, and then hushing up complaints by providing free medical care. Erin's common touch gets the families to open up, and gradually a case is mounted to prosecute company malpractice.

Erin's single-mindedness becomes the driving force of the movie, and exercises different effects on those around her. For Masry, the case lends his stalled career a second wind, and Finney, who starts out shifty and graceless, takes up the crusade with renewed vigour; at one point he almost seems about to caper. His American accent still isn't entirely convincing, but it's his best work in some time. On the personal front, Erin depends on George (Aaron Eckhart), a tattooed biker whose kindliness extends to being virtually a house-husband, looking after the children while their mother fights the good fight. This is quite a change of style for Eckhart, whose scheming executive Chad in Neil LaBute's In The Company of Men rates as one of the vilest misanthropes in all cinema. Here he's a chilled-out dude, willing to play the New Man role, but wary of being taken for granted.

He's right to be wary. Susannah Grant's screenplay keeps reminding us what Erin's professional zeal is costing her emotionally. She knows the case inside out, but it has entailed spending less time with George and her children. It's also made her a little self-righteous. When Masry co-opts a big-city firm to help out on what has spiralled into a cause célÿbre, Erin believes (erroneously) that she's being squeezed out, and crosses the line from feisty into downright rude. "I think we got off on the wrong foot here," says a prim-looking bigwig. "Two wrong feet is all you've got, lady," Erin snaps, "that, and fucking ugly shoes." The line will probably get big laughs (it even got clapped when I saw it), but it made me feel sorry for the woman and her unattractive shoes; indeed, Erin's behaviour to female co-workers throughout the film is less than sisterly, perhaps because she can't use her sexuality on women as easily as she does on men.

When the generic demands kick in, Erin Brockovich occasionally looks a little trite and obvious. Early on there's the obligatory anonymous phone call threatening Erin and her family if she proceeds with her investigation; there's the mysterious 11th-hour production of a vital witness that will bolster the families' case; and there's the slightly wearisome business of being preached at which liberal-crusader movies tend to find irresistible. Oh, of course, we want to see justice done and the wrongdoers brought to book, it's just that you feel less inclined to punch the air when you've had your arm twisted for so long.

Erin Brockovich isn't great cinema, but it's a great audience movie, and it will get people on its side in the way that films like Jerry Maguire and Working Girl did: it's the spectacle of an underdog biting fat cats in the ass. It would be less loveable, I think, if Julia Roberts were not in almost every frame of it. But she is, so let's be grateful that a decade of poor choices and misfires is over, and a movie star has proven that she can carry a picture on talent as well as desirability.