A Civil Faction

Erin Brockovich opens today in theaters nationwide.

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Erin Brockovich wears the pretense of a hammy Civil Action Grishamized for genre standards. But if you can recall the indie breakthrough Sex, Lies and Videotape, you can rest assured that filmmaker Steven Soderbergh will never ride on a commercial bandwagon.

Although less provocative than the sexy crime caper Out of Sight, Soderbergh's new film is brimming with heated politics and superb acting. Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Stepmom) commands a presence and a newfound respect for her performance as the title character.

She sheds her Pelican Brief expertise and starts off as a legal world freshman, defying one utility company's oligarchic authority while developing compassion for her clients. Erin has more than just three children and rent to worry over - her altruistic mission to battle Pacific Gas and Electric Company looks about as feasible as suing Phillip Morris for causing lung cancer.

The true events that inspired screenwriter Susannah Grant concern Erin's pursuit of the largest settlement ever ($330 million) from a direct-action lawsuit. That enormous reparation goes toward the 634 plaintiffs who suffered from chromium-tainted water, for which PG&E unctuously denied responsibility.

But as stated earlier, this is more than A Civil Action II. Soderbergh tends to characterize Erin Brockovich more as a human than a heroine. Heroes and heroines are in danger of being seen as only crime-fighting machines. A lot of the film spends considerable time with Erin's life at home. What does it mean that she is a single mother? How does she win at the office, but lose at home?

Erin Brockovich addresses these questions where other courtroom dramas might have Supermom locking up the villains while losing nothing in the process. Susannah Grant builds this story on the trials of Erin's sacrifice - she gives up time with her children and her boyfriend so that she can save a community from corporate exploitation.

Roberts is a visual delight from beginning to end, not only because of her tight clothing. She has chosen her best role to date and played it with the confidence level of a seasoned actress. With her flawless acting, Roberts gives Erin Brockovich a mercurial sassiness that starts a lot of friction on screen and loads of laughter among the audience. Most of the entertainment derived from Erin Brockovich comes from the cathartic release of her rage toward an untouchable corporate entity. Her sharp tongue is as deadly as her determination to topple PG&E. Roberts out-trash talks any character in the script and looks stunning doing so.

Ed Masry (Albert Finney) starts out as her attorney for a nasty fender bender, but becomes her employer when he loses her chance for an automobile injury settlement. He's the cool-headed lawyer always holding back the hot-headed Brockovich. His gentle composure and obsolete fashion-sense combine beautifully with Erin's brashness and risque attire. Erin's love interest arrives in her next door neighbor, George (Aaron Eckhart) the Harley-Davidson biker. Conveniently, he is in between jobs and babysits Erin's children while she works her door-to-door charm and gathers evidence for PG&E's indictment. George is what you'd expect as the overlooked boyfriend - waiting at home, but not waiting forever.

The outcome of the story is a no-brainer, but how the story is told is often more important than its point. The plot predicates itself on sophisticated drama rather than alarming suspense. Director Soderbergh and cinematographer Edward Lachman (The Limey) conceptualize the drama more visually than anything else by reserving musical artifice for last. These two don't need much more than a camera and a talented actress to capture the stress, the anger, the frustration of a working mom. Often Lachman's camera deploys a silent reflection of Roberts' face that speaks every word we don't hear.

The costume designer Jeffrey Kurland keeps his hands full with a constantly changing wardrobe for Erin. Roberts may have sampled an entire department store by the last day of filming. As far as editing goes, Anne Coates adds her experienced touch (with about 50 years of feature film credit). She syncs up some pretty cool shots that have been spliced with jump cuts.

This film hits home for Bay Area residents especially, who may or may not be aware that PG&E has a monopolized control over this region. The local Municipal Utility Departments can't seem to write big enough endorsement checks to appease city mayors. Every place needs an Erin Brockovich and an industrial-size Brita filter.


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