In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts has big hair, big earrings, big everything. Her hair looks like a lion's mane after the wash and rinse but before the comb-out; whole swaths of it are held back with bobby pins. As in Pretty Woman, Roberts wears hooker attire: a leather vest with a zipper down the middle, a see-through blouse, push-up bras that produce cavernous cleavage, miniskirts that affect the way she walks, high heels that call for a tightrope-walker's steadying pole. Somehow, these do-me outfits free up something in Roberts, who's never liked the camera as much as it likes her. And so does the script's take-no-crap-from-anybody dialogue. "They're called boobs, Ed," Roberts tells Albert Finney, who's almost afraid to look at them, what with their mixed message of invitation, warning and threat. Erin Brockovich may be the role of a lifetime for this good ol' girl from Smyrna, Georgia, who's always seemed most comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt--a stretch but a manageable stretch. Based on real life, the movie has been called "Rocky in a miniskirt" by one of its producers, but it's actually closer to Norma Rae and Silkwood, an inspirational story about a woman who sees a wrong and tries to right it, whatever the costs. When the movie opens, Erin is a single mother of three with no job and nothing to recommend her for a job except the tiara she once wore as Miss Wichita. Then a car accident lands her in court, where she's represented by Finney's Ed Masry, a lawyer who may have chased ambulances at one time but is now getting on in years. Through a process not even Ed understands, Erin winds up working for him. And perhaps someday Ed will wind up working for her. Pursuing a pro bono case, Erin discovers that the local power company has both contaminated the water supply and attempted to cover up the problem. Hundreds of residents have suffered various ailments over the years, but no one's put all the pieces together...until now. Slipping into something less comfortable, Erin starts making the rounds, building what turns out to be a mammoth lawsuit against the power company. And if this scenario seems a little familiar after Norma Rae and Silkwood, director Steven Soderbergh is very careful to ground it in the dusty soil of the San Fernando Valley, near the Mojave Desert. The movie itself seems contaminated by toxic chemicals, its sun-bleached landscapes giving off an almost radioactive glow.
You have to admire the way the filmmakers have deglamorized everything. They've even taken the teeth out of Roberts' smile, which isn't called upon to get her out of acting jams this time. And so we can accept her as someone who might be having mac and cheese for dinner (again). The movie assigns Erin a boyfriend, George (Aaron Eckhart), who rides in and out of her life on a Harley. George, who babysits the kids, may be too good to be true, but Eckhart does a great job of showing us how you could fall for a woman like Erin, who's a biker chick one moment, Mother Hubbard the next. "Are you going to be something else I have to survive?" she asks him shortly after they meet, and the line pierces our hearts. Maybe it's the miles that are starting to show in Roberts' face, but she suddenly seems to have come a long way as an actress.