Cups and Roberts

Julia gives Erin Brockovich a good dressing down

Caught in the middle of all this are Erin's kids, whom she has left in the care of next-door neighbor George (Aaron Eckhart), a shaggy Harley rider who works construction when he wants to -- which, in this case, isn't at all. George and Erin begin a sort of accidental romance: He genuinely cares for her kids and asks nothing in return when he begins baby-sitting for Erin. That they fall in love (or whatever -- the terms of their romance are never quite laid out) is inevitable. They're drawn to each other because both of them have run out of options (and it doesn't hurt that they're the two beautiful people living amidst such lower-middle-class squalor). George is at once the perfect man and the louse-in-waiting: He wants all of Erin, not just for himself but for her children, whom she has ignored in order to attain the deference that's always been far out of her reach.

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, its obviousness) or almost apologizing for its truth-is-better-than-fiction, fairy-tale ending. So they undercut every moment of tension with a smart laugh, a wry punch line -- 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's 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.

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