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Erin Brockovich

For fans of Steven Soderbergh, the Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich comes across as something like "Soderbergh Lite." Of course, all of the renowned director's tell-tale tics are in evidence — the atmospheric, low-key music, the penchant for jump cuts, the compression of long scenes with crisp elliptical structures — but for those who have relished such recent fare as Out of Sight and The Limey, it seems like Soderbergh willingly set aside much of his own talent in order to give Roberts full attention. For what that's worth, Erin Brockovich is generally a success, if a mainstream one, as Roberts portrays the eponymous Brockovich in this part-fiction, part-fact adaptation of her legal action against energy giant Pacific Gas & Electric, who faced enormous legal damages when it was discovered that groundwater laced with hexevalent chromium potentially inflicted a variety of life-threatening illnesses on hundreds of northern California residents. And for fans of Roberts or sharp legal dramas, the story is an appropriately plucky one, since Brockovich, a clerical in a small law firm, had three kids, two ex-husbands, and no legal training. However, she also had a bad temper that reveals a persecution complex of the first order, and the many moments in the film where Roberts gets into hysterical shouting matches can be the most trying, as we are asked to identify with the character (the only real lead character in the film) but wince at her inability to cooperate with the people who can best help her cause — and for all of the valuable empathy she has for her disease-ridden clients, her inability to reconcile her emotional investment with the very pragmatic nature of tort litigation at times threatens to send the entire case down the river. But if the negatives must be played proactively, Roberts is given a handful of smug scenes (via scenarist Susannah Grant) where she gets to dress down people she sees as her moral inferiors with nifty speeches that somehow graft enormous self-righteousness on to language barely fit for a docklands tavern. These moments, always followed by pregnant little pauses, are entertaining but clearly were designed to elicit some "stand-up-and-cheer" reactions in packed cineplexes — effective there, when seen with a critical eye on home video they have all the subletly of a police beating. Watch this one for Roberts' overall performance, which does a good job of conveying Brockovich's single-minded doggedness, Soderbergh's light touch, and supporting performances from Aaron Eckhart as a Harley biker with a heart of gold, and Albert Finney as Brockovich's disheveled, gruff boss, who gets the last laugh in the end. Universal's DVD edition of Erin Brockovich features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. Interview segment with Brockovich, 15-minute "Spotlight on Location" featurette, 30 minutes of deleted scenes with commentary by Soderbergh, trailer, notes. Keep-case.

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