An exhilarating tale about a woman discovering her full potential and running with it, "Erin Brockovich" is everything that "inspirational" true-life stories should be and rarely are. Vibrant and often quite funny in its account of how an unschooled, twice-divorced mother of three spearheads an investigation that leads to the largest payoff ever made in a direct-action lawsuit, this very satisfying picture takes Julia Roberts into more realistic performance territory than usual.

An exhilarating tale about a woman discovering her full potential and running with it, “Erin Brockovich” is everything that “inspirational” true-life stories should be and rarely are. Vibrant and often quite funny in its account of how an unschooled, twice-divorced mother of three spearheads an investigation that leads to the largest payoff ever made in a direct-action lawsuit, this very satisfying picture takes Julia Roberts into more realistic performance territory than usual and should lead director Steven Soderbergh into an uncustomarily rarefied commercial realm. R rating and fact that this is not a pure escapist confection like most of the actress’s films will undoubtedly result in somewhat lower than normal B.O. for Hollywood’s biggest female star, but there is still more than enough heart and humor here to put “Erin” in the winner’s circle, where the heroine ended up in life.

At the moment, Soderbergh is working in a manner closer to that of the top directors of the old studio era than anyone has in years; turning out pictures at a rate faster than one per year, he’s impressively adjusting his style according to the demands of his eclectic material, collaborating with a wonderfully unpredictable assortment of actors and building a fascinating career in the process. He sacrifices nothing here on what promises to be his most commercial film to date, which in turn should lead to more opportunities on even bigger projects.

As for Roberts, she has never been more winning, bringing the full force of her dazzling personality to bear on a character well on her way to being a total loser but who resolutely refuses to go that route. Some may carp that if you look like Roberts, especially as she’s tarted up here with eye-popping, cleavage-enhancing tops and miniskirts, a lot of doors will open that might be closed to others. But the film offers sly proof that the star’s showy impersonation isn’t a glamorization at all: The real Erin Brockovich, in briefly as a coffee-shop waitress, appears to be every bit the knockout that Roberts is.

Based on a case that began developing in 1993, Susannah Grant’s lively screenplay has the shape of such previous activist, David-and-Goliath stories as “Norma Rae” and “A Civil Action,” but smartly keeps the focus on its protagonist, stays almost entirely out of the courtroom and mercifully steers clear of easily programmed triumph-of-the-underdog sentimentality. Even when Erin is completely absorbed in her cause, one is not only constantly aware of the three kids who are resentfully missing their mother, but also of Erin’s calculation that the pain and sacrifice might well be worth it.

Banged up in a car accident in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, Erin engages an attorney, the capable but unkempt Ed Masry (a splendidly skeptical but open-minded Albert Finney), who’s on the downward slope of a respectable, if unremarkable, career. Furious when he fails to score her a much needed settlement, Erin wills herself into a job by occupying Ed’s office until he agrees to start paying her. This is just one aspect of her brazenness, which has probably hurt her as much as it’s helped her in life; the owner of a conspicuously foul mouth, Erin’s habit of wearing trampy garb is unnerving to some members of the law office, but the sight of her gallivanting around in spiked heels and outrageously sexy outfits becomes a delightfully funny running gag, one with which costume designer Jeffrey Kurland must have had a great deal of fun.

Erin’s baby-sitting needs are met most unconventionally, even by her standards, in the person of new neighbor George (Aaron Eckhart), a tattooed, longhaired Harley freak whose casually unemployed status and sweet manner lead Erin to entrust him with her kids, even as she warns him that his patience and helpfulness aren’t going to get him in her pants. Of course, they do, but the George role, enhanced by Eckhart’s easygoing, highly appealing perf, stands as a nifty twist on the countless tales in which selfless women have stood by with kids while men pursued their destinies.

Pic gets to its main course when Erin notices some incongruous medical files mixed in with real estate records relating to a pro bono case the firm is handling. Heading out to a small California desert town dominated by a huge Pacific Gas & Electric plant, Erin meets Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger), a sweet woman with grievous medical problems for whom PG&E has paid the medical bills, “because of the chromium,” she says. Now they want to buy her house for a moderate fee, thereby ending the matter.

This is just the first step in a long journey that sees Erin, untrained in fact-finding and legal techniques, digging out evidence that all the water in the area surrounding the PG&E facility has been tainted with a toxic chromium rust inhibitor, which the utility had the gall to inform residents is “good for you.” Hundreds of locals have come down with maladies ranging from chronic nose bleeds to cancer, putting Ed, who gradually comes to absorb the magnitude of Erin’s discoveries, on a track to filing one humongous lawsuit.

Much fun is had with the stiff and stuffy PG&E lawyers as they make settlement offers they hope will get them off the hook, only to be toyed with playfully by Ed and profanely by Erin. Because of the size of the case, Ed is forced to bring in a larger law firm to help, and this only serves to put Erin’s unique abilities in sharp relief; the prim, officious manner of the firm’s rep (Veanne Cox) makes all the working-class locals clam up, whereas they open their lives and problems to Erin, whom they see as one of their own.

When victory arrives, it is communicated, not in the hackneyed movie hoopla of hooting and hollering and cries of “Yes!,” but in a quiet front-porch scene in which Erin, accompanied by George, informs the long-suffering Donna how much money she will be receiving. Well done.

Story is ultimately about how a downtrodden but determined woman fights to make her innate sense of self-worth stick and be acknowledged by the world. Scenarist Grant, after “Pocahontas” and “Ever After” and with “28 Days” coming up in April, is establishing herself as the moment’s preeminent young writer of femme-slanted films; her dialogue is snappy and unusually funny under fundamentally serious circumstances, without being contrived or sitcomy.

While never letting the film’s sharp dramatic focus slacken, Soderbergh manages to keep things loose and nimble visually. Ed Lachman’s lensing maintains an edge of heightened reality against a warm emotional and visual backdrop, and Anne V. Coates’ editing and Thomas Newman’s jaunty score contribute in their respective ways to increasing a sense of curiosity and expectation.

Erin Brockovich

Production

A Universal release (in U.S.) of a Universal and Columbia Pictures presentation of a Jersey Films production. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. Executive producers, John Hardy, Carla Santos Shamberg. Co-producer, Gail Lyon. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay, Susannah Grant.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Ed Lachman; editor, Anne V. Coates; music, Thomas Newman; production designer, Phil Messina; art director, Christa Munro; set designers, Masako Masuda, Patricia Klawonn; costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Thomas Causey; supervising sound editor, Larry Blake; assistant director, Gregory Jacobs; casting, Margery Simkin. Reviewed at the Beverly Connection, L.A., Feb. 29, 2000. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 131 MIN.

With

Erin Brockovich - Julia Roberts Ed Masry - Albert Finney George - Aaron Eckhart Donna Jensen - Marg Helgenberger Pamela Duncan - Cherry Jones Theresa Dallavale - Veanne Cox Brenda - Conchata Ferrell Charles Embry - Tracey Walter Kurt Potter - Peter Coyote Matthew - Scotty Leavenworth Katie - Gemmenne De la Pena Scott - Jamie Harrold

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