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Alexandra DuPont reviews ERIN BROCKOVICH

ROBOGEEK here, with the lovely Alexandra DuPont's review of Steven Soderbergh's forthcoming "Erin Brockovich" -- which I understand is coming to Austin's own SXSW Film Festival next month. Yee-haw!

It's no secret that Robo's a major Soderbergh fan; "The Limey" is spellbindingly cool cinema, and "Out of Sight" -- well, what can you say? But you know the film I really love of his? SCHIZOPOLIS! If you haven't seen it, go rent it. It's a freaky-cool little experimental film that is waaay out there, but also stands as the fulcrum upon which his career turned into its current Golden Age. I personally think lots of filmmakers would benefit from going to do their own SCHIZOPOLIS -- I mean, look what it did for Soderbergh? But I digress...

Anyway, take it away, Alex! And stop calling me Harry! ;-)

Toujours, Harry. I don't know if film historians will ever officially identify 1998-2000 as "The Golden Age of Steven Soderbergh," but I'm pretty sure Mr. Soderbergh -- when he's in his cups after a long week of directing telefilms and sitcom episodes 30 years from now -- will.

And well he should. While he'll probably never achieve "household name" status or the deeply ingrained hipster cred of a Jim Jarmusch, Soderbergh keeps wowing the film geeks with his consummate, clever craftsmanship. In "Out of Sight" and "The Limey," he came off as this sort of marvelous hybrid of Howard Hawks and a pretentious art-film director -- a little more Hawks in "Out of Sight," a little more pretentious in "The Limey."

(And while everyone seems to appreciate "Sex, Lies and Videotape," am I the only person who thought "Kafka" was any good? "The Underneath"? The non-Texan, non-animated "King of the Hill"? Do I have a witness?)

Which brings us, at any rate, to "Erin Brockovich." Where a lot of directors with Soderbergh's recent resume would just keep making cool crime films (and essentially pander to hipster cineastes, the indie cocktail circuit and alternative-newsweekly reviewers 'round the world), Steven has gone and made a film that's decidedly un-hip -- a Julia-Roberts-as-white-trash-paralegal docudrama. And while it's not "cool," God forbid, it's a quality piece of formula filmmaking.

Soderbergh explained this queer choice of material in an excellent Jan. 6 interview with He was supporting "The Limey" and his recent book on Richard Lester, but he also made this telling comment re: "Erin Brockovich":

"As somebody once put to me, bluntly, 'If you think Hollywood movies are so f***ing terrible, why don't you try to make a good one instead of bitching about it?' So I've been trying to carve out half-in, half-out of the mainstream ideas for genre films made with some amount of care and intelligence and humor -- to see if we can get back to that period we all liked in American cinema 25 years ago."

Well, exactly. Here's the breakdown on "Erin Brockovich":

THE STORY: It's actually a fairly formulaic tale (albeit one based on actual events), so let's approach it as a recipe, shall we?

(1) Take the plot of "A Civil Action" -- personal-injury lawyer crusades on behalf of small-town folks getting their chomosomes rearranged by corporate-polluted water yadda yadda yadda.

(2) Change the ending.

(3) Add spice in the form of bickering characters -- a good move, as "A Civil Action" was, in my mind, a bit too civil.

(4) Split John Travolta's character -- a la Captain Kirk in "The Enemy Within" -- into crotchety lawyer Albert Finney and determined white-trash loudmouth Julia Roberts.

(5) Remove Julia Roberts' celebrity halo. In place of halo, outfit Julia Roberts in extremely tight minidresses -- you know, the sort of things you'd imagine Cher wearing around the house.

(6) Finally, and most important: ADD DIRECTOR STEVEN SODERBERGH. Because Soderbergh takes what's actually a pretty formulaic story on the page -- a relatively sharp Horatio Alger/poor-girl-makes-good/legal "dramedy" -- and turns it into something pretty damned interesting. I'm talking laugh-out-loud-once-or-twice interesting. I'm talking moderate-audience-applause-at-the-end interesting. In short, it's a well-made Hollywood crowdpleaser -- nothing less, and maybe a little more.

DOES JULIA ROBERTS LOOK HOT? Yes, SSZero, She looks "hot," if single mothers in prostitute garb really get you going. But what's really extraordinary about Julia's performance here is how much she disappears into it. Erin Brockovich is a twice-divorced, tactless, luck-free, desperate, proud, ill-educated prole who's sort of loathed by her office-mates. She's seen in the same outfits -- gasp! -- more than once during the course of the movie. The camera isn't always centered on her. And the effect on the audience was extraordinary: They LOVED her for it. This is Julia's best performance to date -- the dark side of "Pretty Woman"'s bullcorn fantasy, and a self-deprecating acting job to rival "My Best Friend's Wedding."

The other actors are par for the course in a Soderbergh film -- i.e., they're uniformly excellent. Aaron Eckhart (so evil as Chad in "In the Company of Men" that no one had the guts to give him the award he deserved) plays the movie's "girlfriend" role, a biker who finds himself turning into "Mr. Mom" as Julia's legal career takes off. (Minor quibble: Eckhart's vocal life was just a LITTLE too polished for his caste. Flame away, Hell's Angels!) And Albert Finney is, well, he's ALBERT FINNEY -- so his small-potatoes lawyer, as you can imagine, is perfectly evocative of every middling entrepreneur you've ever met and foolishly underestimated. And the other women in Finney's office are just as resigned and passive-aggressive as the ones you find working behind the desk in the automotive aftermarket.

AND THE FILMMAKING? As mentioned above, this story's been done before -- it's just done a little better here.

One of the things that really struck me about these small-town characters was that they actually wheezed, had beer bellies, and looked like they'd lived a little. There was none of the usual Hollywood condescension or faux nobility where everyone gets turned into a Diane Arbus subject. Even the token SICK CHILD could act. And where many filmmakers would be tempted to linger or milk certain lines or moments (and believe me, they're there to be milked in Susannah Grant's screenplay), Soderbergh dissolves, cuts, or otherwise moves right along.

Also, the film's frequently funny. When Erin B. justifies her provocative dress by saying, "As long as I have one ass instead of two, I'll wear what I like," the audience very nearly whooped. It was then I realized why the studio's so "up" on this film: They suspect, correctly, that Roberts and Soderbergh have inadvertently created a working-class hero.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK?: Mild SPOILER ahead: There may be one too many reaction shots of Albert Finney's character rolling his eyes at Erin's antics, and there's a 20-minute section near the end that briefly lost me. Not coincidentally, it's the most cliched section of the film -- featuring one-and-a-half musical "montage" sequences of Erin gathering signatures, plus a fairly stock "smoking gun." Even so, Soderbergh quickly gets things back on track, leading to a fast, funny and (dare I say it in the presence of hardened geeks?) inspiring denouement.

You have been warned -- and encouraged. Take a date.

- Alexandra DuPont

P.S. That book Soderbergh wrote on Richard "Three Musketeers" Lester is titled "Getting Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw -- also Starring Richard Lester as the Man Who Knew More Than He Was Asked." I don't think it's been released in the U.S. yet, but you can read about it in Michael Sragow's excellent interview, which makes the tome sound utterly insightful and hilarious. here's the link:

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