Early in Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts is so ravishing it’s almost ridiculous. She’s supposed to be playing a financially strapped ”ordinary” woman — a divorced, unemployed Los Angeles mother of three who scrambles from one job interview to the next, desperately faking a resume in the hope that she can land work long enough to feed her kids and pay the phone bill. Yet Roberts looks like few harried, paycheck-starved single moms ever have. She’s dressed in a teasing array of lace-up leather miniskirts, platform heels, and bustiers; with her endless legs and gorgeously tousled chestnut hair, and with that fireworks-of-teeth smile in full explosion, she’s about as ordinary as…well, the most radiant star in the galaxy.
Fortunately, the director, Steven Soderbergh (The Limey, Out of Sight), is one step ahead of us. He knows that Roberts couldn’t dim her incandescent cover-girl wattage even if she wanted to, and so he doesn’t ask her to try. Erin, a former Miss Wichita who has been through one too many high-wire relationships, flaunts her erotic vitality because it’s the only thing she knows how to do. In a strange way, it’s the key to her character. Sassy and outrageous, she’s a trash-talking babe, a hellion compulsively bent on stirring things up. She may not be educated, but she’s got brains and instinct, and she uses her fiery, sexy drive to connect to whomever’s in front of her.
Erin Brockovich is one of those lone-justice crowd-pleasers, like Norma Rae or Silkwood, in which a workaday woman dares to fight the system because she’s too stubborn, or foolhardy, to know that she’s not supposed to. Roberts’ feisty, take-no-prisoners Erin coerces her way into an entry-level job at a scruffy Los Angeles law office, the sort of place in which the wood paneling looks like it hasn’t been changed since the early ’70s and where the attorney in charge is a middle-aged ulcer candidate named Ed Masry (Albert Finney). Assigned to do some paperwork on what looks like a trivial pro bono case, Erin stumbles upon a hidden epidemic. Dozens of residents in nearby Hinkley have fallen victim to multiple tumors, degenerative organs, and other freak afflictions, yet no one has surmised that the wave of catastrophic illness might have something to do with Pacific Gas & Electric, the industrial plant on the edge of town. With little to go on but her gut, Erin learns that PG&E has employed a deadly form of chromium as an anti-rust agent, thereby contaminating the local water supply.
Why does Erin alone see through the company’s lies? Mostly because of how torn up she is over the victims. She’s wounded by their plight, especially that of the tremulous, naive Mrs. Jensen (played with touching vulnerability by Marg Helgenberger). The result is that her investigation never feels overtly noble or righteous; it’s a matter of sheer empathetic will. Erin Brockovich is based on a true story, but almost everything in it feels familiar from previous corporate-malfeasance thrillers like A Civil Action. The movie is consistently engrossing, never quite exciting. Its surprise — and its pleasure — is the plainspoken humanity of its outrage, its utter absence of demagoguery and hype. The arc of the tale may be conventional, but Roberts, in her most forceful dramatic performance, allows us to take in every moment through fresh, impassioned eyes.
Erin and Ed become tag-team detective partners, and it’s a delight to watch Roberts, with her flirtatious sparkle and undertow of melancholy, ricochet off Finney’s wonderfully jaded, dry-as-beef-jerky performance as the beleaguered career attorney who knows too much about the loopholes of his profession to have much faith left in it. As George, the biker next door who becomes Erin’s lover after he begins to look after her kids, Aaron Eckhart, swathed in tattoos and an overgrown foliage of goatee and sideburns, may be playing a bit of an ideal — a rebel/hunk/househusband — but he makes goodness as palpable as he did yuppie evil in In the Company of Men.
In a sense, the film’s ultimate villain is the bureaucratic impersonality of the legal system. Ed doesn’t think that his firm has the financial resources to win the case, and so he brings in a couple of expensive, big-shot lawyers (Peter Coyote and a rather too caricatured Veanne Cox) to help shoulder the burden. The ultimate weapon, of course, is Erin herself; she’s the only one who cares enough to bother winning the trust of the plaintiffs. Erin Brockovich can be as foursquare inspirational as a Capra film (the smoking gun that finally indicts PG&E practically drops out of the sky), but Soderbergh has made it with the sort of gentle, unfussy confidence that allows him to throw away the movie’s culminating moment on a quiet front porch. This is a muckraker that hums with decency.