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by: Michael Dequina

On paper, Erin Brockovich bears more than a passing resemblance to 1998's A Civil Action. Both are vehicles for major Hollywood stars (respectively, Julia Roberts and John Travolta); both are based on true stories; and both stories are about a legal crusader helping the residents of a small town battle a large corporation that has been contaminating the local water supply. Despite these striking similarities, there remains one key difference: while treating its serious subject matter with the gravity it deserves, Erin Brockovich also manages to be a lot of fun.

That fact owes a lot to the film's vibrant title character, one that I imagine even Hollywood would have difficulty creating if reality hadn't. Erin (Roberts) is a vivacious, twice-divorced mother of three who, as we meet her, is not doing a very good job selling herself at a job interview. The scene is short, but its few minutes vividly depict the delicate balance that Roberts and director Steven Soderbergh achieves throughout the film's entire two-hour-plus running time. The scene is undeniably funny, its humor heightened by Erin's trashy mode of dress and the increasing desperation of her words. But one laughs at the situation and not her; in Roberts' eyes one can catch the underlying sadness and seriousness of the situation, plus the gradual awareness that she's fighting a losing battle. For the most part, Erin Brockovich plays in a similar way; one is consistently engaged on a purely--for lack of a better term--"entertainment" level, but providing an underlying foundation is something that lends the proceedings a bit more dramatic weight.

The major "something" in Erin Brockovich is the aforementioned case involving the residents of Hinkley, California, whose water supply has long been contaminated by the large PG&E corporation. Through some not-terribly-convincing plot machinations, Erin gets a job as an aide to attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney), and it is through her work there that she gets personally involved with the plight of the Hinkley citizens, many of whom are suffering grave illness due to prolonged exposure to the poisoned water.

Erin is brassy, smartmouthed, and, most important of all, not a lawyer, and the bulk of the film's enjoyment derives from the ballsy, carefree way she conducts her research and life in general. She is also unabashedly a woman, not afraid to call upon her feminine wiles to get her way--allowing Roberts to be more brazenly sexual than she has since her career-making turn in Pretty Woman. Roberts also has never been so ideally cast since that film; the kookiness of her character gives her ample opportunity to flash that trademark smile of hers (not to mention a few other assets) while giving her a chance to stretch comfortably as an actress. Not only are there plenty of the light moments for the fans, there are just as many heavier dramatic scenes for her to display her serious acting chops. That these two sides seamlessly gel into a full-bodied character is as much a compliment to her as it is to Soderbergh.

Soderbergh's sure direction keeps the action moving briskly enough, the actors believable enough, and the audience's emotions and interest engaged enough to forgive the overall familiarity of the story. Erin is, above anything else, an average woman, and this is a traditional tale of how she bucked the odds and scored a big triumph for herself and her fellow common folk. What aren't so easily forgiven, however, are other formulaic wrinkles in the script, which is credited to Susannah Grant. Chiefly problematic among these is her relationship with the next-door neighbor, a kind motorcyclist named George (Aaron Eckhart). Their relationship begins prickly, warms to a friendship, then heats up into a romance. Roberts and a barely unrecognizable Eckhart are well-matched, but their skill and rapport are sh


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