Remember that mercifully brief `serious actress' phase Julia Roberts went through in the mid-'90s, when she sucked the life from once-intriguing projects like Mary Reilly, and tipped the scales out of balance on Michael Collins? Fortunately, wiser minds - and career minders prevailed, and Roberts was shoehorned back into the kind of audience-pleasing parts (My Runaway Best Friend's Notting Hill Wedding) that made her a star in the first place: the appealing-yet-vulnerable everywoman with the parting-of-the-Red-Sea smile.
Now her title as undisputed box-office queen has been safely restored, the initial response to her return to serious drama is: oh no, not again. Happily, that reaction turns out to be an erroneous one, because (rant over) Roberts is in prime, fizzing form as the eponymous heroine. In the sort of sexy, pseudo-feminist role that Susan Sarandon or Geena Davis would have played a decade ago, Roberts strides through Erin Brockovich like some crusading, white-trash Amazon on an environmental jihad.
True, the toothy one doesn't really deviate too far from her winning formula, but it's the setting of America's impoverished underbelly and compelling David-versus-Goliath storyline that make the difference. Not to mention Brockovich's tacky wardrobe of micro-skirts, see-through blouses and push-up bras (the movie's Best Supporting Accessory, without doubt), and enviable line in knife-tongued wisecracks.
Matching Roberts scene for scene is Finney. As the legal bottom-feeder who puts his faith in Brockovich and his prospects for a cosy retirement on the line for a do-or-die chance to play with the big boys, he gives an eminently engaging performance. And his sparring, tempestuous relationship with Roberts is the axis around which all the poisoned-citizen, legal-wrangling and rocky-home-life subplots revolve. They make a vastly superior screen couple to Roberts and Aaron Eckhart, taking a break from screen bastardry (In The Company Of Men) to play the stay-at-home boyfriend, which requires him to look moody yet caring and periodically complain about the hours she works.
But the man who's really straying into unexplored territory (for him) is Soderbergh. After the gloriously dare-devil pyrotechnics of Out Of Sight and The Limey, one has to wonder what the limited confines of the eco-disaster genre had to offer him. Hasn't he seen Silkwood? That's not to say Erin Brockovich is poorly directed. If nothing else, Soderbergh manages to sidestep or detonate a cliché minefield at nearly every turn. But alarmingly for such a sure-footed film-maker, he also slips up with a few moments of cringiness.
For anyone else, this would be a career highlight, a sturdy example of finely-crafted storytelling. But knowing what Soderbergh's capable of, there's a slight sense of disappointment that this isn't just a little less conventional, a little more inspirational.
Bathing in the glow of her recent box-office success, Roberts goes flat out on the acting gusto and cleavage reinforcement as toxic avenger Erin Brockovich - and turns up triumphant. If only Steven Soderbergh had pushed himself as hard.
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