Julia Roberts does two things really well – smile and sass – and her best performances are in roles which utilize her sweet tartness (Pretty Woman, Mystic Pizza). In a film such as Mary Reilly, where her character is glum and passive throughout, Roberts is rendered utterly lifeless.
But in Erin Brockovich, Roberts’ trademark spunk and amiable likability dovetail perfectly with the real-life woman she’s playing, a twice-divorced mother of three young children with little education, a scant résumé, an even skimpier wardrobe and the inability to censor herself from speaking her mind.
After a frustrating job search, Erin uses her formidable will and a dollop of guilt on lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney), who hires her to shuffle papers at his low-rent Los Angeles firm. While processing a case file for a seemingly routine real estate dispute, she notices some strange paperwork regarding medical exams and environmental testing. Driven by her intense curiosity, Erin heads out to Hinkley, a small, blue-collar California desert town, and begins to unravel a devastating scenario.
Hinkley’s residents suffer from an extremely high incidence of cancer, and Erin’s research links their illnesses to the local utility plant, which uses a toxic, carcinogenic chemical that’s leaked into the town’s groundwater. She convinces Masry to initiate a massive lawsuit, which eventually results in the largest settlement ever paid in U.S. history.
Susanna Grant’s sharp screenplay charts the changes in Erin’s life as her fierce determination and unacknowledged intelligence finally bring her well-earned respect, but it also never loses sight of the very real people involved in the suit (unlike the attorney-centered A Civil Action).
Director Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, The Limey) undercuts any possibility for sappy melodrama by using a cinema- verité style that keeps events firmly rooted in reality. But Erin Brockovich really belongs to Julia Roberts, who finally proves her own mettle by embodying a real woman who’s been underestimated far too long.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.