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Erin Brockovich

Check out the cleavage in the photo below. Go ahead, stare, get it out of your system. Yes, Julia Roberts, the pretty woman walkin’ down the street on spike heels in Erin Brockovich, jiggles like a babe from Baywatch. Done looking? Good. Because the movie, directed by the reliably surprising Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, The Limey), is more than an excuse to get off by watching the highest-paid female star in Hollywood flash her ta-tas and talk dirty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

It would be easy to kick the gas out of this showstopping star vehicle by raising pesky moral questions about exploiting real-life tragedy for fun and profit. But, hey, that’s Hollywood. For a true story about water pollution, cancer and mountains of legal briefs, Erin Brockovich is outrageously, even shamelessly, entertaining. Unlike A Civil Action, which took a muted approach to a similar topic, Erin is as loud as its heroine, a twice-divorced single mother of three young children who revels in flaunting the vocabulary and wardrobe of a hooker. In 1992, Brockovich worked as a file clerk in a small law firm and helped the citizens of Hinkley, California, sue Pacific Gas & Electric, the $30 billion company that contaminated their water, poisoned their children and then lied about it.

‘s a dynamite role, and Roberts comes out blazing — tough, tender, sexy and brashly funny. We meet Erin in crisis, topping off a failed job interview by getting her car rammed at an intersection. In court, she wears a neck brace and ignores the advice of her attorney, Ed Masry (Albert Finney in full, flinty vigor), to dial back on her mouth. Yeah, right. Pointing at the other driver, she yells, “That asshole smashed my fucking neck.” Erin loses her case and blasts Ed for his lawyering: “You suck at it.” Later, Erin begs Ed for a job as a file clerk. The former Miss Wichita can work now, since her kids are at home with George (Aaron Eckhart), the biker dude who’s just moved in next door. Erin rips into George — a sure sign they’ll end up in bed — until the stud reveals that hess a Mr. Mom at heart. Eckhart — a solid-gold charmer — redeems the trite role.

At the office, Erin’s peekaboo fashion statements alienate her co-workers. “Bite my ass, Krispy Kreme,” she tells a chubette who shoots evil eyefuls at her. To Ed’s suggestion that she rethink her wardrobe, Erin sasses: “Rethink your ties.” OK, itss a little cute. You may worry that screenwriter Susannah Grant, who made her name inventing plots for TV’s “Party of Five,” is planning a new series about a leggy law clerk who outshines her dim boss every week. Call it Erin McBeal.

Never fear. The movie is a winner because Soderbergh, with an uncredited script assist from Richard LaGravanese (The Fisher King), tempers the flash with substance. When Erin finds medical records in a real-estate file on the Hinkley case, the facts of the real story kick in. Roberts is a live wire, but her fine, strutting performance is propelled by Erin’s real feelings for those who have been damaged by PG&E. Roberts shows the emotional toll on Erin as she tries to stay responsible to her children and to a job that has provided her with a first taste of self-esteem.

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Credit Soderbergh for not turning Erin Brockovich into a one-woman show. He and cinematographer Ed Lachman keep the community front and center (part of the film was shot in Hinkley, next to the PG&E plant). Soderbergh draws strong performances from a large cast, including Marg Helgenberger as a plaintiff who supports Erin in her crusade and Cherry Jones as a victim who does not.

As for the film’s lapses, Erin blubbering on her car phone when George tells her she’s missed her baby’s first word is pretty daytime TV. And it’s hard to watch actors as good as Finney and Peter Coyote, who plays a legal hotshot, stand around slack-jawed while Erin — armed with a screenwriter’s arsenal of smart put-downs — explains the true meaning of justice. Others may wince when Roberts, who made $20 million for playing Erin, hands over a $5 million settlement to a cancer victim with the line “It’s all you’ll ever need and all your children will ever need.” PG&E paid out $333 million to 634 plaintiffs — the largest settlement ever in a direct-action suit — but that seems paltry compared with the $2 billion that Roberts’ films have grossed. Some value system. Still, it’s hard to resist a heroine who jokes that she signed up 634 plaintiffs to sue PG&E by performing sexual favors. Erin Brockovich, in life and on the screen, can’t sell candy-assed platitudes about the triumph of the human spirit (see The Cider House Rules because, mercifully, she sucks at it.)

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