Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Erin Brockovich (2000) ***

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Susannah Grant. Photography, Ed Lachman. Editing, Anne V. Coates. Production design, Phil Messina. Music, Thomas Newton. Cast: Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), Albert Finney (Ed Masry), Aaron Eckhart (George), Cherry Jones (Pamela Duncan), Peter Coyote (Kurt Potter), Veanne Cox (Theresa Dallavale), Marg Helgenberger, Cherry Jones, Scotty Leavenworth,Gemmenne de la Pena, Tracey Walter. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher. A Universal /Columbia release. 127 minutes. R. (language)

Let's talk beauty. Julia Roberts made her first big splash in and as "Pretty Woman. " The title has stuck to the lyrically enthusiastic descriptions of her.

Is she really as incredibly gorgeous as the slick magazines keep hammering? What's happening to the classic canons of pulchritude? Through the ages the standards have changed. The chorus girls of 1930s-40s motion pictures are, to say the least, plump by today's measurements. The pouty little mouths of the silent screen disappeared after talkies took over. "Glamor" is a moribund expression. Even so, some constants do remain.

Julia Roberts has a willowy figure. Her face is, to put it mildly, unorthodox. Both serve her well in "Erin Brockovich. " Her noticeable nose and big slash of a mouth are respectively symbolic of Erin's amazing ability to sniff things out and to talk her way through the film with vigorous arguments, and expletives that are light years away (or 61 movie years) from Rhett Butler's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!"

Writer-director Steven Soderbergh's first feature "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" won the Golden Palm at the 1989 Cannes Festival. Almost all of his subsequent films have been remarkable, original, quirky and playing with time--but not commercial hits. Yet his excellent "King of the Hill " was most accessible and his recent "Out of Sight" pleased audiences and critics.

Erin Brockovitch, correctly pronounced should be VITCH and not VIK, but I can't remember hearing the last name in the movie. I can flatly state however that the film will be a big hit. It is a mainstream, linear job without tricky flashbacks or other stylistic flourishes. It stars an enormously popular prima donna who is in just about every scene of this two-hours-plus story. And it is arguably the best performance to date by Roberts. But don't let the word "mainstream" fool you. Soderbergh has assimilated audience-pleasing principles yet, in other ways injects novelty and imagination in his picture.

Take the opening. Erin, a twice divorced single mother of three, is scraping bottom financially. She needs--and how--a job. We meet her in a wonderfully scripted and performed interview with an MD for a receptionist position. Her febrile talk underlines her anxiousness as well as her lack of credentials. The doctor then says something like "Now look at this"--and you just know that she won't get the job. The movie cuts away to Erin getting back to her car, which, seconds later, gets hit by the BMW of, ironically, another doctor. Fine, clever direction and editing.

Erin gets aging lawyer Albert Finney to sue. His firm is small, his girth is not. We get, refreshingly, the only courtroom trial in a movie that's chockfull with legalities. The scene is short, but not sweet for Erin. She loses. No explanations are given but we guess clearly that Erin's blatantly sexy outfit on the stand and her generous use of the f-word have done her in.

Increasingly desperate, the lady scours the want ads. She may have been a beauty queen in Topeka, but she was also a school drop-out. The absence of qualifications again. Things are tough. So Erin, with the irony that throughout the movie alternates with pathos, applies for a file-clerk job at Finney's very office, She gets it through mega-moxie which includes her special brand of outspokenness

The film tells you from the start: This is a True Story. That's more often than not an alibi for embroidering fantasies and inventions into facts. Yet in its basic, general lines the movie is fact indeed. Getting ahead of myself I'll say that a real corporation, giant, $28 billion Pacific Gas & Electric, had to pay the largest reparation ever in the USA to a huge number of suing individuals.

True too is that the real Erin started it all, that she dressed, acted, spoke the way Julia Roberts does. She also was a looker. You can ascertain this in the sequence where Erin takes her kids to an eatery. The comely waitress is the genuine Erin.

When ordering food Erin pretends not to be hungry but then, back home, devours a can of something. It does not matter whether or not this is an invention. It is touching, plausible and fleshes out the character.

The movie's Erin is an extraordinarily fast learner who uses efficiently her eyes, nose and hitherto unexploited brains. Shuffling files she finds out that there is a connection between PG&E and the dreadful illnesses and deaths in the working-class California desert town of Hinkley, next to which the corporation had been dumping a poisonous chemical, hexavalant chromium. Forcefully persuading her boss Ed Masry (Finney) that she should and could investigate, she takes off with the energy of a rocket.

The unlikely Erin becomes a convincing sleuth as well as a sensitive and sympathetic interviewer of the population of Hinkley. All of its people have been and still are affected by the poison. Some of them are naive, in need of education and of persuasion to sue. Most are in awe of a mammoth power company's power. Additionally, there are strong layers in the film where the ordinary people mistrust lawyers, lawyers mistrust other lawyers, and legal firms are scared of being sunk by the billions of dollars the corporations can fight back with, as in the film "A Civil Action. "

Increasingly Erin shows superb initiative, intelligence and an amazing comprehension and specific details of her work. The movie works breathlessly as human interest and as a dandy detective story against a painful background. Deja vu? Yes. Think "Silkwood," the aforementioned "A Civil Action,"" The Insider," etc. Yet the subjects are so enormous that there's room for several more works along those lines. "EB" has a nice balance of tragedy, suspense, and humor. Erin herself is the right combination. She takes her work--in fact her mission--as ardently as possible, and her role as mother too, At the same time she seems, slyly, to take her private persona un-seriously, sometimes self-mockingly. She dominates the story. Lawyer Ed plays second (but still major) fiddle to her. Puffy Albert Finney's performance is perfectly on-target. He is fully dimensional as a professional, as Erin's often annoyed boss, and in the ways he slips into the role of a friend and partrner. The varied supporting cast are well-drawn, with economy and feeling. Sensibly, the movie does not try to make of them picturesque characters. Instead it saves all its ammunitions of colorfulness for Julia R. There is star-worshipping strategy here--not irritating, in fact quite pleasant, butover-the-top . Even so, it's not an Achilles' Heel.

The main sub-plot (actually a sub-sub-plot) comes from Erin's plight in caring for her children. This is partly solved by new neighbor George, a tattooed biker and construction worker who makes good money and gets jobs only whenever he pleases. He volunteers to babysit the kids, whom he likes. Obviously this service is also his entree to becoming Erin's new flame. The affair is not especially interesting, appealing or romantic. Mercifully George doesn't take up much movie time. He does have one good, telling moment, and I do mean a moment. While he helps Erin in a "business" picnic of the Hinkley folks, bikers raise dust on the road. George's short look at them is neutral but says a lot in a prime illustration of the Kuleshov effect A major, indeed enormous distraction runs throughout the film : Erin's hooker-like outfits, short skirts, long legs, spike heels and a push-up bra cleavage that constantly threatens to spill the goods. Her reverse dress code raises eyebrows and criticism. It also brings on Erin's snappy retorts. She does not mince her words. The spectacular views, whether cheap, cheaper or cheapest, underline her "take me as I am" attitude. One does wonder how many times the sights make males in the audience miss dialogue lines. They may also be missing the fact that this is a feminist film with a vengeance. Erin, if you half think of it, Wonder-Bra and all, is no bimbo but an activist who's pulling out all the stops. That she is is smart enough to ask for raises is natural. But she has a true cause and feels sincerely the pain of others. Her themes song could be "Body and Soul. "

The familiar formula of the film is the old David and Goliath one--the triumph of the little people over mighty forces--which has fed countless movies, including several of Frank Capra's. It's irresistible, makes the audience rapt with suspense, causes it to cheer openly or inwardly when the good guys win.

"ER" 's scenario feels like the job of a veteran writer, yet it is Susannah Grant's first solo script, following her co-writing of "Pocahontas" and "Ever After. " Remember her name.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel