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Tit for Tat

In the thoroughly winning Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts plays a single mother who, without any legal training, uncovers the evidence and marshals the people power to win the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in the U.S.: $330 million. How does she bring Pacific Gas and Electric (the guilty party) to its knees? Through daring and determination born of a well-developed underdog outrage and the shameless, strategic deployment of t&a.

The fabulously knowing joke at the center of Erin Brockovichis that Julia Roberts's breasts (pushed up and nearly jiggling free of tiny halters and tank tops) and her perfectly molded ass, which practically salutes the camera whenever she turns her back, have the same effect on audiences as they do on the characters in the film. Just as the eponymous heroine flaunts her body to win over the men whose help she needs, Erin Brockovich—essentially a women's picture—uses Roberts as eye candy for boyfriends and husbands. She's not a cocktease; there's never a suggestion that she's going to put out. It's more like she makes you want to be on her team because that way you'll have a chance to look at her a lot.

What's pretty original about the picture is that it focuses an investigative drama based on a true story around a comic performance. Without Roberts's combination of exuberance and irony, Erin Brockovichwould have been a replay of the earnest A Civil Action, in which John Travolta brings suit against a big corporation that's been dumping toxic waste in a town's water supply. Erin Brockovichhas an almost identical plot, but it's closer in tone, and even politics, to Thelma and Louise. Outlaw humor is its survival tool.

Bosom buddies Finney and Roberts
photo: Bob Marshak
Bosom buddies Finney and Roberts

Erin Brockovich is a former Miss Kansas with two bad marriages in her past and three kids to support. Having bullied her way into a job for a tired, ambulance-chasing lawyer (Albert Finney), she starts a little investigation on her own when she finds a strange medical record in a real estate case file. Director Steven Soderbergh employs more mainstream gloss than in previous films, but his knack for getting career-defining turns from actors is intact. This is the Julia Roberts performance her fans have been waiting for since Pretty Woman.

Soderbergh underlines the contradictions that make Roberts a star. Her Erin Brockovich is impulsive and a bit scattered, but she swears like a stevedore and has the endurance of an ox. There's a conscious makeover here that goes beyond three colors of eye shadow and frosted big hair. Roberts still has that mouth and those legs—which have been imprinted on our retinas at the expense of everything else about her—but there's a more grown-up quality to her body, mind, and spirit. And unlike her legs or her lips, her breasts seem neither unique nor perfect—just nice and real.

Finney huffs and puffs perhaps a bit too much as Erin's initially unwilling mentor, but Aaron Eckhart, as the biker next door turned househusband, is sexy and endearing (qualities undisclosed in his previous films for director Neil LaBute). The scenes between him and Roberts generate a sweet heat.

 
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