Julia Roberts turns cleavage and 'tude into civil action in the hugely enjoyable "Erin Brockovich." 

She Fought the Law

Forget Benjamin Bratt. Or Daniel Day Lewis. Or Lyle Lovett, for that matter. Julia Roberts has found her true soulmate in the talented form of screenwriter Susannah Grant. Some might feel inclined to give director Steven Soderbergh credit for Roberts' terrific turn as the unschooled, twice-divorced, bosom-spilling, but doggedly determined heroine of "Erin Brockovich." But not I. Oh no, what makes Roberts, and ultimately the movie, so enjoyable is the uniqueness of character. That's Grant's territory. The story may be true, but Grant has taken the plight and life of the real Erin Brockovich and turned her into a working-class madonna with quick wits and a sharp tongue.

Sure, you can argue all day long that on paper, "Erin Brockovich" is nothing more than "A Civil Action" in skirts, where a small law firm risks everything to bring a powerful utility company to its knees. And you would be correct. But unlike that most recent environmentally driven legal drama, "Erin Brockovich" is all about Erin, not the lawsuit.

In fact, though it's a courtroom drama about the largest direct-action legal settlement in American history, we rarely see the inside of the courtroom. And when the jury returns its landmark verdict — guess what? — we aren't required to sit through a long, impassioned plea and a string of anxious reaction shots. Don't get me wrong, all the legal mumbo-jumbo is there and sounds right, it's just that Soderbergh's camera would rather follow the comely form of Roberts' Erin as she sets out to do the right thing. Grant also deserves credit for steering the plot clear of the usual programmed triumph-of-the-underdog sentimentality. Even when Erin is immersed in the good fight, we are always aware that her three children resent her absence. Roberts and Grant also show us that Erin, too, is aware of this, but she believes the pain and sacrifice for something bigger than her family's status quo might well be worth it.

The story begins when Erin gets banged up in a car accident in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. Seeking a lawyer she can afford, she finds the capable but disheveled Ed Masry (the wonderful Albert Finney). His career is on the downturn, and when he fails to win Erin the big settlement she needs, she stages a sit-in. If he can't get the insurance company to pay her, then he's going to pay her by giving her a job. She's brazen by nature and by dress, and the running gag throughout the movie is Erin's less-than-straitlaced attire. Actually, a better description of Jeffrey Kurland's costume designs for Roberts would be unlaced. Her blatantly sexy garb stands her in great stead as she starts snooping. Her curiosity becomes aroused when she discovers a box of medical files mixed in with real-estate records relating to a pro bono case the firm is handling.

What she uncovers is that Pacific Gas & Electric has been poisoning a small California town with chromium. Proving that awful truth is the battle that turns Erin from something of a victim into a strong, self-assured woman.

You can't help but cheer as Roberts/Erin succeeds. "Erin" is an unabashed valentine for its star, but Roberts gives such a vibrant performance it doesn't matter. This is Roberts' movie and she makes the most of it, strutting around in spike heels and barely there, tight skirts.

If there's an actor around capable of holding his own against Roberts in such crowd-pleasing costumes, it's Finney. Screenwriter Grant gives him a curmudgeonly field day of a character to fill out. Aaron Eckhart also makes a pleasing impression as Roberts' Harley-loving neighbor who becomes her unorthodox day-care provider and more, of course. If there is a misstep in Grant's screenplay, it's that the people Erin helps never seem more than a variation on a standard victim. Marg Helgenberger comes closest to carving out a memorable victim, but that's not saying much. It's also quite evident that Soderbergh ("Out of Sight," "The Limey") is behind the camera. Shots are regularly hand-held and close-ups regularly extreme.

By plot and predicament, "Erin Brockovich" is really just the same old, fist-waving David and Goliath battle we've seen before. What makes it so compelling this time out is the powerful combination of Roberts and Grant.


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