A Trash-Talking Crusader

Julia Roberts is flat-out terrific in "Erin Brockovich." She's playing a brash, tenacious, trash-talking heroine unlike any she's played before, and she's utterly convincing in the part. At the same time you never forget you're watching Julia Roberts, possessor of the most incandescent smile in Hollywood. This is not a dis: it's just further proof that she's a bona fide movie star. Stars, by definition, do not change their essential properties, that force of personality that connects them to an audience with an almost familial intimacy. Roberts has wasted her effervescence on many paltry projects, but she hits the jackpot this time. Erin, single mother of three, a former Miss Wichita who improbably rallies a community to take on a multi-billion-dollar corporation, is the richest role of her career, simultaneously showing off her comic, dramatic and romantic chops.

It also happens to be a rousing, hugely entertaining movie. Director Steven Soderbergh, on a roll since "Out of Sight," takes a genre that can easily fall prey to self-importance, and gives it a fresh, spontaneous spin. Like "A Civil Action," "Erin Brockovich" (opens March 17) is a fact-based story of industrial pollution and an attempted cover-up: Pacific Gas and Electric used a deadly chemical in its plant in Hinkley, Calif., that seeped into the water and resulted in hundreds of cases of devastating illness. Like "Norma Rae," this is a story of an unlikely and uneducated heroine who spearheads the fight for justice. But Soderbergh's film is neither a courtroom drama nor a standard Hollywood exercise in liberal self-congratulation. Pungently written by Susannah Grant (with an uncredited rewrite by Richard LaGravanese), shot with unglossy immediacy by Ed Lachman, "Brockovich" moves and outrages us as such tales of public villainy ought to. What's surprising is how funny and light on its feet it is. Roberts and Soderbergh aren't just giving us hagiography: Erin is both a courageous crusader and a pain in the ass, and her embattled relationships with the men in her life--the veteran lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) for whom she works, and the biker George (Aaron Eckhart) with whom she falls in love--give the movie its comic electricity.

Erin, penniless, bullies her way into a job at Masry's small L.A. law firm, where she first stumbles on the pro bono case involving the residents of Hinkley. Her female co-workers are put off by her eye-popping, cleavage-heavy wardrobe. (Jeffrey Kurland's wittily tacky costumes could be nominated for best supporting actress by themselves.) She's a constant thorn in Masry's side until he realizes the enormity of the evidence she's dug up against PG&E. From then on, they become odd-couple partners. Finney, with his boiled-potato face and alarmed eyebrows, is a masterful comic foil for Roberts's needling, lower-class rage. They're a great beauty-and-beast team.

Just as satisfying is her complex relationship with the biker next door. Almost unrecognizable under his beard, Eckhart bears no relation to the cads he's played in Neil LaBute's movies. George, like Erin, belies his outer appearance. Great with kids, he becomes Erin's lover--and full-time babysitter, a role he begins to resent when she becomes too obsessed with her cause to notice him. Eckhart should have no trouble getting leading-man parts after this: he's sexy and tender and funny, endowing this scruffy Harley dude with a delicate mix of yin and yang.

Even the smallest roles in "Erin Brockovich" jump out at you. (Cherry Jones and Marg Helgenberger, as two Hinkley plaintiffs, are among the standouts.) There's a momentary sag late in the tale, when Erin's crusade to get the plaintiffs' signatures becomes repetitious, but the movie makes a quick recovery. Like its rowdy, firecracker heroine, this movie gives off too many sparks for anyone to get bored.