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Pretty Smart Woman

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2000


    'Erin Brockovich' Julia Roberts stars as "Erin Brockovich." (Universal)
Julia Roberts has breasts.

That's the big news in "Erin Brockovich," and that's the news that'll probably make the movie a hit: Roberts busting out all over in a variety of skimpy outfits that look enameled on, where they're not slashed down toward the waist or up toward the hip. The star agitates like Jell-O aboard a runaway StairMaster as she takes on a California utilities company while blowing out that million-kilowatt smile.

But that's not the best news. The best news is that "Erin Brockovich" is terrific populist entertainment of the old school. It is a rabble-rousing cheerfest, based on a true story, that proves movies don't have to blow things up or scare the moisture out of you to make a buck. In Heaven, Frank Capra is pleased. Sure, a little T&A helps, and Roberts obliges, but her frankness of body is a reflection of the character's frankness of spirit.

When we first meet her, poor Erin, a fallen former beauty queen, has too many kids – three – and not enough jobs – zero. Her life, driven by a high school diploma and little else, has been heretofore wasted on dead-end men and dead-end jobs; now she is abandoned again, and it has disintegrated into the chaos of unpaid bills, unmade beds and unfulfilled promise.

One very bad day, she's broadsided in her breadbox of a car. The next thing you know, Erin has hired small-potatoes lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) and is suing the guy who hit her. And the next thing after that, she's losing her case, primarily because she showed up at the trial dressed like someone hoping to get a screen test at Vivid Videos. And the next thing – things happen fast in this movie – she's throwing a major scene at Masry's office to get a low filing-clerk's job.

That's the start, and Roberts, never sassier, rides the line between the outrageous and the endearing with a great deal of energy. Despised by the more sedate office women, she's brazen, loud and – here's the funny thing – smart.

Yeah, smart. Under the curves, Erin has a brain. It's numbers-driven – she can memorize endless phone lists, for example – but it's shrewd, and it hatches possibilities. And, as the movie makes clear, it's happily uncontaminated by education. Erin sees things the professionals would miss; she feels things the professionals wouldn't acknowledge. Best of all, Erin does something the professionals can never quite bring themselves to do: She listens.

When Erin leans forward and her eyes fix on you, you can feel her soul opening to yours. For Erin, it's no trick. That's just Erin – she didn't have to learn how to fake sincerity. She was sincere.

Asked by Masry to do some legwork on a pro bono case involving a utility purchasing a house in an agricultural zone far from L.A., Erin learns that the whole neighborhood is a blighted zone. With her gift for numbers and her quick grasp of chemistry, she discovers a water table so infected with chromium that it has shattered the health of all who have lived there. She requests some time to "investigate," and the lawyer distractedly says yes and then is astonished when she stops showing up at the office. He fires her.

But when he finally examines her work – post-firing – he realizes she has a great instinct for investigation, a hunter's patience and that gold-plated gift of empathy.

So ever so soon, they're a team – Roberts's sass plays so well with Finney's bluster, a kind of father-daughter ragtime. But the movie insists on seeing Erin, the whole woman; contrapuntal to the escalating case against the utility, it plays out her romantic life with a decent boy next door (Aaron Eckhart) who happens to ride a Harley and wear a lot of leather, and happens to care deeply for her kids.

The movie, smartly directed by Steven Soderbergh, is solid evidence that he has the chops to be a major commercial director, though it occasionally stoops to cheap shots. At one point, after Finney has sold a half-interest in the case to a larger, slicker firm (evidently common legal practice), the movie plays a crude game of one-upmanship in which Roberts's earth-mother moves play off against a big-time lawyer who is portrayed as a frostbitten princess who won't step into the mud in her heels and tells people she's deposing, "Please don't indulge in the sentimental." She's so idiotic that she can't be believed.

And then there's the crass materialism that underlies the film. There's no doubt that Brockovich represents virtue and that the utilities are on the side of narrow-focused pragmatism. But the movie so baldly celebrates the financial remuneration involved – at $333‚million, it was the biggest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history, according to the film's publicists – that it comes to feel indecent. Its emotional climax arrives when Erin gets an even bigger bonus than she expected. It's as if she's just won the big one and that's Regis, not her employer, congratulating her.

Well, all right. But how much nicer if Erin took more pleasure in the good that she had done instead of the money she had made.

ERIN BROCKOVICH (131 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for body display and profanity.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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"Erin Brockovich"
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