Erin Brockovich

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

A cell-phone conversation between Erin and George, in which he tells her that her baby girl has spoken her first word during Erin's prolonged absence, is perhaps the most striking scene in the film -- and the most sincere thing Roberts has ever done on film. She can't decide whether to smile or cry, so she does both at once -- the proud mother, ashamed at what she's done to her children but unable to help it or apologize for it. See, she not only wants justice for the residents of Hinkley, she wants their respect (and Ed's, and George's), because that's the only thing in life she's never had. "Years ago I was Miss Wichita, for Chrissakes," she tells George, when he later demands she give up her job. "I thought I was gonna do something important with my life. This job ... for the first time in my life, I got people respecting me. I never had that -- ever. Don't ask me to give that up." Like everything else in the film, it's an honest, moving moment -- and so on the nose, it's like getting tapped by Mike Tyson. At times it feels less a script than an inspirational speech.

To the film's credit, Erin's investigation often feels beside the point. This is less a film about exacting justice than it is a film about a film about exacting justice. It's as though Soderbergh and Grant know there's no way to tell this story without commenting on its familiarity (no, it's obviousness) or almost apologizing for its truth-is-better-than-fiction, fairytale ending. So they undercut every moment of tension with a smart laugh, a wry punchline -- almost all of which are about Erin's tits. It's effective to a point, but the film begins to lose momentum by the end, just around the time Erin tells Kurt Potter (a smarmy Peter Coyote, as though there's any other kind), a lawyer Ed has brought in to assist with the case, that the only reason she got this far is because "I just went over and performed 634 sexual favors, and boy, am I tired." Sit through this, and you'll know a little of how she feels.

Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich
Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich

Opens March 17.

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