The lucky hooker of "Pretty Woman" was the alter ego that made Julia Roberts a star, but Erin Brockovich is the one that will firmly establish her as an actor.
The title role of Roberts' latest outing is the sort of part that minimizes her weaknesses (see "Mary Reilly" for their more egregious examples) and maximizes all of her strong points: that rapid-fire delivery, those effectively sudden reactions, that gate-mouthed smile.
With its reality-based story a familiar excursion into a David-and-Goliath legal conflict, the effectiveness of the picture rests almost solely on Roberts' spaghetti-strapped shoulders. And she carries the burden with style.
It's a brassy style, to be sure. The real-life Brockovich wore tacky outfits that were cut down to here and up to there, and Roberts dutifully follows suit. (We may all wonder if she was surgically prepped for the role; the question is hers to answer.)
But Roberts backs up the walk with talk whose occasional predictability doesn't blunt its blatant effectiveness. Even when you can just feel the next lines of dialogue getting ready to break free from the Dolby speakers, she makes the scenes work.
In time, heroine Brockovich may become a kind of role model for under-trained divorcees with children. Here as in real life, the unskilled single mother finds herself scraping bottom after two failed marriages, finally winning a job in a lawyer's office through sheer will and self-assertion.
Naiveté and curiosity lead her to connect a simple real-estate deal with the systematic pollution of rural Hinkley, Calif., by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Her own earthy sympathy for the downtrodden pollution victims leads the townsfolk to trust her. That trust is ultimately borne out in a lawsuit that's filed on their behalf by her employer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney, in low dudgeon).
The movie also involves us in a relationship between Brockovich and George (Aaron Eckhart), a gentle-handed construction worker who likes her well enough to take care of her children while she spends long hours building the lawsuit. (If this subplot proves anything, it's that women who are married to their work fare no better at home than men.)
Writer Susannah Grant lends the story some of the same gutsy, go-girl gumption she injected into the Cinderella yarn, Ever After: A Cinderella Story. Steven Soderbergh, who showed in Out of Sight that he's maturing as well as any director in Hollywood, is wise in keeping courtroom scenes out of "Erin Brockovich," thus reducing the similarities between his new movie and, say, A Civil Action or "The Verdict."
Taking the model of the 1940s studio picture as his guide, Soderbergh makes sure that playing Erin is a star turn. For better or worse, this is Roberts' film. Thank heavens it's for the better.