Rated R - Running Time: 2:10 - Released 3/17/00

A little over a year ago, John Travolta starred in A Civil Action, a film based on a true story about a lawyer's long-shot crusade against a big business guilty of contaminating a small town's water supply. Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich is so similar in narrative terms, it might be considered a copycat film to Action, were it not also based on a true story. I guess the lesson is that when it comes to big business and pollution, history repeats itself. At any rate, Erin's similarities to previous material do not take away from its qualities as an informative, entertaining film, with Julia Roberts putting in a fine performance as the title character.

Erin Brockovich is, at the film's start, a woman at the end of her rope. After the departure of her second husband, she is forced to look for a job to support her three children, despite the fact that the former Miss Wichita has no experience or training in anything except child-rearing. She is an attractive, friendly person and a provocative dresser (she's got more push-ups than an Army training base), but has no luck until, after a traffic accident with a doctor results in an unsuccessful litigation attempt, she applies for a job with her attorney, Ed Masry (Albert Finney). Though her style of dress and her often profane language prevent her from fitting in with the other women working for Ed, her dedication soon leads her to uncover a major scandal involving a large company contaminating the water supply of the small town of Hinkley, California, with a rust inhibitor called hexavalent chromium. After talking to residents of Hinkley, Erin discovers a widespread pattern of disease and suffering, including cancer, asthma, Hodgkin's disease, miscarriages, and livestock deaths. Against Ed's misgivings, she pursues the case and persuades him to put his entire small business in hock to try it.

Julia Roberts is, as usual, full of personality. She is also, as usual, playing the same role she has played in every film I have ever seen her in. Hooker with the heart of gold, stepmother with the heart of gold, runaway bride with the heart of gold — she's got the heart of gold thing down pat. I think perhaps this performance could be likened most readily to her role in The Pelican Brief (the law student with the heart of gold); anyway, Roberts exudes her usual charm and sports a wardrobe equal to that of Marisa Tomei's in My Cousin Vinny. Finney is strangely distant as her boss, Ed; he is believable enough, but conveys a vague sense of a deer caught in Roberts's, er, headlights. One brief but scene-stealing performance is by Marg Helgenberger as Connie Jensen, the first victim Erin interviews, and the one whom we follow most closely. Another engaging turn is put in by Aaron Eckhart as George, Erin's biker-babysitter-boyfriend, whose character is so unconventional he could only be based on a real-life person. No one in Hollywood would ever come up with this guy. His ad-libbed scenes with the children — 8-year-old Matthew (Scotty Leavenworth), 6-year-old Katie (Gemmenne De la Pena) and 9-month-old baby Beth — are some of the most spontaneous in the film.

Written by Susannah Grant (Pocahontas, Ever After), Erin's screenplay is one of its strong points, offering Roberts plenty of chances to flash those famous pearly whites while remaining an intelligent, sympathetic character. There are also hidden lessons about the intricacies of the legal profession and the dangers of unseen treats in your water glass. While Roberts's characterization and the film's story both bear shades of recycling, Erin is smart enough to stand for (her)self. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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