Steven Soderbergh has given Julia Roberts the gift of a big mouth, and I don‘t mean the ever-ready, wide-angle smile that made her a megastar. If the low-key charm that comes so easily to Roberts has made her box-office gold, it’s also sentenced her to girl-film mediocrity. Notting Hill and Runaway Bride may have made 1999 a banner year for Roberts‘ asking price, but neither film required her to do much more than show up, and wax radiant for a matrimonial finale.

In Erin Brockovich, the fact-based story of a jobless, twice-divorced single mother of three turned anti-corporate activist, Roberts is sparing with her famous grin, deploying it only as needed to get Erin what she needs, which at the outset is nothing more than an office job with Ed Masry (Albert Finney), a rumpled lawyer nearing retirement who failed to get her a settlement after a car accident that was not her fault. From then on, Roberts is all foul back talk and attitude, and having the time of her life. Under Soderbergh’s direction, the actress surges into something altogether bigger than her customary affable grace — an untapped avidity and the unapologetic lust for life of a winner in search of a cause.

The only blaze of glory Erin Brockovich has ever known flickers on faintly in the crown she archly models in bed for her biker boyfriend (played by Aaron Eckhart with the flirty camaraderie of a sexual egalitarian) and in her eye-popping wardrobe, an endless supply of leatherette bustiers that generate cleavage you‘d never believe the preternaturally skinny Roberts could muster. No Norma Rae, she: When, in an early scene, Erin announces that her goal is to be “a good mother, a nice person and a good citizen,” there’s already a glint of more in her eyes — ambition, and a burning need to be recognized, respected, paid attention to. There‘s a wall between Erin’s powerful self-regard and the value the rest of the world places on her. She dresses as much to please herself as to provoke, and no amount of clucking from the secretarial pool or her discomfited boss is likely to sober up her office attire — or her determination to get to the bottom of a cover-up she smells after stumbling across medical records incongruously stored in some real estate files.

On the face of it, Erin makes an unlikely activist, and an even more improbable feminist. She‘d probably have trouble defining either term, but it’s only a matter of time before she‘s tossing around words like “hexavalent chromium,” the carcinogenic chemical that’s been polluting the water of a small California community plagued by a suspiciously high incidence of malignant tumors. The injustice of the cover-up by a public utility company outrages Erin enough to galvanize a reluctant Ed into helping her gather enough signatures to file suit.

Soderbergh is one of the few directors currently working who can dance happily between studio and independent moviemaking. He takes his independence for granted no matter who he‘s working for, and he never condescends to an audience, however mass the market. Though his films always betray a profound affection for genre, Soderbergh likes to play around with its boundaries: In The Limey, the regretful inner life of Terence Stamp’s aging gangster felt just as significant as any of the punches he was throwing. Schizopolis was — well, who the hell knows? At the very least, a lovely, inchoate tangle, densely intellectual and goofy all at once, a film made to please its creator.

Framed as a David-and-Goliath story, Erin Brockovich has both the mainstream appeal and the formal elegance of Soderbergh‘s Out of Sight, which stitched a thriller into a romantic comedy without showing a seam. Sidestepping the inevitable courtroom scenes, the director nevertheless gives the populist anti-corporate melodrama, not known for its subtlety, its due. With Roberts as his glitzy centerpiece, he was able to people his supporting cast with plain, ordinary faces, and he has drawn some wonderful performances, notably from the usually glam Marg Helgenberger, as an unassuming homemaker who’s growing sicker by the day; and from Cherry Jones, as the weary resident whose refusal to join in the lawsuit could derail the whole plan. Yet Soderbergh never confuses serious with solemn, the kind of highmindedness that may have sunk The Insider at the box office. Erin Brockovich is a sexy, hugely enjoyable romp, hedged with lyrical grace notes and intimate detail. The film‘s moods rise and fall in fluid rhythms. In one scene, an academic, disheveled almost to the point of caricature, earnestly briefs Erin on the finer points of chemical toxicity, then follows her retreating miniskirted figure with a glance that’s a quickie treatise on lust as social leveler. In another, a husband rendered distraught by news of his wife‘s worsening condition hurls rocks into the blue night, then drops to his knees in impotent despair.

It’s these shifts in emotional register that lend Erin Brockovich its delirious fullness, and nowhere more than in the complexity of Erin herself. Roberts appears taller than usual, and not just because of the big hair and spiky fuck-me heels that her character favors. Erin comes on with all the bawdy, insolent warmth of Dolly Parton, the brassy backbone of Bonnie Raitt. She‘s no saint: As penned by Susannah Grant, a screenwriter with a fierce and funny Callie Khouri touch that will either make her Hollywood career or result in doors banging in her face, Erin is a woman who barks “Oh, bite my ass, Krispy Kreme!” at a disapproving fellow worker. She’s also the multiply dumped lover who, surrendering to a preliminary kiss with the biker, asks wistfully, “Are you gonna be something else that I have to survive?” And she‘s the devoted mother (Roberts’ relaxed warmth with kids is a pleasure to watch) who sheds tears over not being around to hear her youngest child utter her first word, while steeling herself to continue the fight even if it means facing her sulky older son. But while she may be a mouthy rebel with a reliable gift for tripping herself up with authority figures, among the disenfranchised locals she shows the tact, the loyalty and the persuasive smarts of a natural-born grassroots organizer. They are her kind of people, Job-like in their endurance until someone who feels like kin comes along to goad them into claiming their rights.

The beauty and the candor of Erin Brockovich is that saving the underdog is far from Erin‘s only motivation. Her crusade is also a career starter: She wants to be shown the money, and we want to see her get it. By the end of the movie, Erin Brockovich has become a heady American anomaly, a woman who has not only made a fortune, but come by it honestly. No wonder Soderbergh was attracted to her story. In the shark-infested waters of movieland, he’s done exactly the same thing. And so, at last, has Julia Roberts.

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