Unlike the more glamorous roles she's had recently in Stepmom and Notting Hill, Roberts' title character is earthy and down on her luck. Erin is a twice-divorced mother of three, trying to re-enter the workforce with only her determination to support her. Without a degree or on-the-job experience, she's ignored by employers. During her futile quest, a wealthy doctor crashes his car into hers. She tries to sue the doctor, but her attorney, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), isn't prepared for the personal attacks she faces on the stand (the jury has no sympathy for a single mom with no job).
With no other options, she begs her former counsel for a position as a clerk. At first, the job is little more than charity. Her responsibilities are minimal, and her feisty manner and showy outfits (Ally McBeal is the only person in the legal profession who wears shorter skirts) irritate her co-workers. However, Erin quickly proves her worth when she receives a file on a seemingly minor real estate case in a small California town. She may be short on training, but she's smart enough to know that medical records look suspiciously out of place in simple land disputes. Before long she discovers that Pacific Gas and Electric has been polluting the local water supply with chromium III and, as a result, has afflicted hundreds of residents with cancer and other maladies.
Despite the formidable opposition of PG&E's legal team, Erin convinces Ed to pursue the case. Their past courtroom failure and their clashing styles don't stop them from becoming a powerful team. Ed has considerable experience and expertise, and Erin's frank, informal manner wins over the town. She doesn't speak legalese ("I hate lawyers. I just work for one," she boasts), and she has an easier time recruiting potential plaintiffs than the aloof attorneys do. Like her, the clients are disenfranchised blue-collar folks hoping to redress a wrong.
It's obvious where the movie is headed. Roberts' sunny presence and the story's factual origins (Masry wound up winning the largest settlement of its kind in U.S. history, and the real Brockovich appears briefly as a waitress) determine that. Nonetheless, Erin Brockovich is arguably the most gratifying and entertaining movie the actress has made to date. Much of the appeal is due to some small but subtle touches from director Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight) and writer Susannah Grant (Ever After). The two avoid courtroom theatrics and instead concentrate on Erin's difficulty juggling the demanding case, her family, and her amiable but frustrated biker boyfriend (a surprisingly likable Aaron Eckhart from In the Company of Men). This approach capitalizes on Erin's in-your-face sexuality and her ability to make monkeys out of the seemingly more sophisticated lawyers. It also helps that Erin is far more sympathetic than most of Roberts' recent roles. Erin may be crude, but her determination and compassion continually shine through. As the inevitable conclusion nears, one longs for it because it's hard to watch Roberts in this role and not root for her.
An ace supporting cast certainly helps. The standout is Finney. The veteran British thespian may be playing second fiddle, but he more than holds his own. It's a riot watching him attempt to keep his composure when Erin makes countless outrageous remarks. Soderbergh's camera frequently lingers on Finney's face as yet another look of exasperation creeps over it.
Still, the movie belongs to Roberts. She dominates just about every frame of the film, and thanks to her able support and her own innate charm, that's not a problem. (R)