Lawsuits make good entertainment, in the multiplex if not in real life. "Erin Brockovich," the new fact-based comedy-drama by Steven Soderbergh, picks up themes treated in recent movies as different as "A Civil Action," which didn't win its case with audiences, and "The Insider," now contending in the Oscar race.
Soderbergh's entry in the legal-eagle category isn't great cinema, but it has enough engaging moments - and enough of Julia Roberts's photogenic face - to expect sure-fire success at the box office.
Roberts plays the title character, a single mother whose streetwise sensibility - accompanied by notably short skirts and four-letter language -hinders her quest for middle-class stability. This changes when she wangles a job in a law office and gets interested in a case her boss has hardly noticed: a real-estate transaction involving a utility company and a family dogged by a surprising amount of illness.
Why have the family's medical records been placed in the same file as their business papers? Does the corporation know something about hidden health hazards - pollution, contamination - surrounding the little home it suddenly wants to buy? Erin is on the case, riffling through utility files and interviewing everyone in sight.
What she discovers is a conspiracy to cover up an environmental debacle caused by sloppy disposal of dangerous chemical waste. The next step is to organize the community affected by this horror, helping ordinary folks band together and fight for compensation.
Erin has to learn the legal skills - and people skills - she'll need if she and her new acquaintances are to succeed.
"Erin Brockovich" is Roberts's movie, focusing on her feisty performance even when other impressive talents - such as Albert Finney as the attorney - are sharing the screen with her. This will please her zillions of fans, who can be expected to line up early and often at the ticket window.
A major beneficiary of this commercial outlook could be director Soderbergh, who has been trying desperately for a second hit ever since he scored in 1989 with "sex, lies, and videotape," the offbeat comedy that placed him - and the whole phenomenon of American independent film - on the cultural map. Nothing has done the trick so far, even when recent efforts like "The Limey" and "Out of Sight" racked up favorable reviews.
If it clicks as well as expected, "Erin Brockovich" could be Soderbergh's ticket back to the big time. Ironically, though, some of his admirers may feel his victory isn't entirely sweet. "Erin Brockovich" proves he can deliver a pleasing mass-audience package, but it lacks the special artistic touches that made his most interesting films (like "The Underneath" and "King of the Hill," both badly underrated) great fun to watch even as they bombed at the box office.
"Erin Brockovich" is smooth, efficient - if you don't find its 131-minute running time too long - and calculated, right down to the split-second timing of its surprisingly off-color punch line. But it's neither as personal nor as imaginative as Soderbergh's best work.
That said, there's plenty to praise in Thomas Newman's laid-back music score and Ed Lachman's unflashy cinematography.
The cast includes a performance for every taste, from Roberts's cheerfully earthbound acting to Aaron Eckhart's brawny biker with a talent for baby-sitting - a character who'd make a stronger impression if his subplot (a bit of love interest) didn't seem tacked onto the movie as a half-hearted afterthought.
If you'd like to see a community-centered legal tale with a truly philosophical edge, rent Atom Egoyan's superb "The Sweet Hereafter," one of the greatest films of the past decade.
But if a mischievous retelling of the David and Goliath story strikes your fancy, "Erin Brockovich" is definitely the movie to check out.
*Rated R; contains adult situations, dialogue about severe illness, and a great deal of foul language.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society