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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 Salon.com. 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 Salon.com interview, which makes the tome sound utterly insightful and hilarious. here's the link: http://www.salon.com/ent/col/srag/2000/01/06/soderbergh/index.html

Readers Talkback
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  • Feb. 25, 2000, 5:10 p.m. CST

    Albert Finney

    by Stephen Dedalus

    I'm glad to see that this guy hasn't given up. A great actor with a terrific career behind him (just witness TOM JONES or UNDER THE VOLCANO or THE DRESSER), and I'm happy to see that he can at least make it in supporting roles.

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 5:29 p.m. CST

    Soderbergh is king

    by StanleySpector

    I'm hearing more and more great things about this movie. Soderbergh's so great because he uses both style and substance, a combination few can get right. I think Terrence stamp should've played Erin in his Priscilla getup. Now, that would be interesting.

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 5:35 p.m. CST

    Alexandra, don't tempt SSZero...

    by All Thumbs

    Anyways, about the movie...I can honestly say this movie is one of the ones I'm most looking forward to seeing this year. Finally, a movie with Julia Roberts in it that the fanboys cannot whine about; something that shows off her acting chops (which I believe she showed off in "Notting Hill" and "My Best Friend's Wedding" thank you)! Julia Roberts is a good actress, really, she is AND she looks like a "normal" woman compared to other actresses so you don't spend half the movie wondering if her agent ever feeds her. The other and more important reason to see this movie: Soderbergh, Soderbergh, Soderbergh....and it sounds like a good story. I heard it was a true one. Or is it only "based on a tru story"?

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 6:09 p.m. CST

    Harry

    by XrAfEx

    Are you normally licking away a booger, or is this something new? I hope it's temporary. It's kinda gross.

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 6:13 p.m. CST

    Never met a Soderbergh film I didn't like

    by Lazarus Long

    I have yet to be disappointed by anything in the widely varied filmography of this "Director of the 90's", as I previously proclaimed him. No one has run the gamut of subject and style in the last decade like this guy, with such freshness and experimentation. I happened to love Kafka, which appeared to most as a sophomore slump, but when you look at how different it is from Sex, Lies, and Videotape, you have to admire his refusal to do another talky indie character-study. I guess Kafka was a foreign/noir/overstylized talky character study, but there was a lot more going on there. Acting was great, and the B&W to color switch midway worked really well. From there the jump to the period coming of age magic of King of the Hill was one of the great underappreciated moves in recent film history (on par with Curtis Hanson going from L.A. Confidential to Wonder Boys). I won't go on and on about the rest of SS's stuff, but each film is worth viewing and analyzing, each achieves a different goal in expanding Soderbergh's directing vocabulary. My only gripe is that I would like to see him write something by himself again. I thought Sex Lies was a fantastic screenplay; his book on the entire process of the movie's creation is one of the best books I've read on film.

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 7:20 p.m. CST

    Just saw Out of Sight and it was awesome.

    by Plucky

    Great characters by Cheadle and the fat guy falling on the polished steps and blowing himself away was classic. James Spader rocked in Lies and Videotape too.

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 7:31 p.m. CST

    Jesus Grind Satan's head

    by Everett Robert

    Don't ask me why I choose that as a subject...I got an email from a friend the other day with that heading and it came back to me as i preparing this talk back...ok now on to Erin Brockovich...I'll probably get flamed for this but I have only recently gotten into Soderbergh but in those few short years I've become his biggest drummer, at least in the state of kansas I think...I saw sex, lies, and videotape when I was a mere lad(it actually holds the distincition of my first R rated movie seen without my parents) and I didn't know what to make of it, because well frankly I was hoping for sex, lies and videotape not what I got...but I digress, I never heard much about Soderbergh during my teenage years mainly because I was laying my acting ambitons to the side and concentrating on my Republican political convictions and beliefs and trying to convince everyone to be a repbulican...but then I slowly moved back into acting and taking it seriously and decideing I wanted to do this for a living...about that time I found the world of indie cinema thanks to Kevin Smith and Clerks...then I found this site thanks to Entertainment Weekly...then because of this site I discovered Out Of Sight and loved it and promoted the holy living hell out of it...I told anyone who would listen to me, and many who didn't that it was probably the coolest film the could see...When the Limey came out...I drove to Kansas City MO to see it(I live in Emporia about a 100 miles away, going to school to study theatre and use college computers to work on my script)...Loved it...I haven't seen his middle works but I hope too before too much longer but I can't find them at any of our video stores here, but then we don't really have any kick ass video stores here in my town...and i don't have the money to buy them...but again I digress...but because of those 3 movies Soderbergh has become probably my favorite director and I'm anxiously awaiting Erin Brockovich...and if there's any test screenings for this in Whicita or Kansas City and anyone knows about it...Let me know! I'm serious here...but let me say I've been looking forward to this, simply because it's Julia Roberts and Steven Soderbergh, hell I was looking forward to this when I just heard the name and those attached and I thought it was a costume drama...now that I've bored you all beyond repair and you've heard my story I'll leave--flame on

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 7:35 p.m. CST

    Just saw Deep Rising and it was better

    by user id indeed!

    Deep Rising has Anaconda shot to HELL when it comes to half-digested bald villians.The ending was a little.... maddening,though.I would very seriously like to see a board on this site called "TalkBack Bitchfights",where mortal enemies like Alex and SSZero,or Quentin and the rest of the world,fought each other for others' entertainment.I'm not trying to start anything,I'm just saying it would be an interesting change of pace.Go Steve Sommers,Mummy 2 will be a blockbuster,boo on Gladiator for trying to leech off the primordial neanderthal instincts of the average moviegoer.

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 7:54 p.m. CST

    Don't drink the water.

    by Lester Diamond

    Man, I hope good movies don't keep coming out like this. Otherwise, I won't have anything to complain about. Soderbergh is the man. Seriously. He just is. And Julia Roberts...well, not a big fan of hers. But she looks good in this. I want to see it. And DuPont? French my ass! "Toujours" means every day!

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 8 p.m. CST

    OR...

    by user id indeed!

    How about this,All Thumbs and Alexandra:I can be your bodyguard!Ever since that comment about lesbianism in that "Sister Satan" board,I've been thinking I could help protect you guys from SSZero!C'mon,I'm buff,I have plenty of lead pipes at my disposal...what say??I'll make this a regular thing.Anything to help my good friends at TalkBack!Go Steve Sommers!Make that Mummy sequel!Cast the Rock!After Deep Rising,you can do no wrong!

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 8:43 p.m. CST

    A. DuPont responds and elaborates....

    by Alexandra DuPont

    (1) First off, Lester Diamond, I

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 8:56 p.m. CST

    TalkBack Visitor??!?

    by user id indeed!

    Alex,I'm User ID Indeed!One of the TEN!!I always email you!We're buddies!I have requent poster miles,dammit!Suddenly I'm just a VISITOR?!?!?!Hmmph!Some friend you are!VISITOR!Hmmph.

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 9:09 p.m. CST

    Sorry, "indeed"...

    by Alexandra DuPont

    ... I certainly intended no offense, but anyone who isn't depicted by an orangish caricature in the upper left corner of the page is a GUEST -- you, me, even Moriarty. If Harry pulled the plug tomorrow, every identity system we've cultivated in this forum, every delusion of "godhood," would be so completely OVER....

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 9:19 p.m. CST

    Spooky thought...

    by user id indeed!

    but at least the orangish caricature puts YOUR headlines on the site...I musta sent him a bajillion headlines that were damned good.I feel so alone!Not really though.It seems like this site could crash at any minute..then what would we do?How would we spend out internet time?Sure,there's the endless supply of ever-growing pornography,but they rarely have message boards.

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 9:24 p.m. CST

    Underneath, King of the Hill

    by sfsarah

    Amen, Alexandra. Soderbergh's The Underneath is one of my favorites and King of the Hill is truly vivid and alive. More Soderbergh films with Spalding Gray, please! http://www.schismatic.com/

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 9:56 p.m. CST

    Spalding Gray

    by Everett Robert

    I was going to launch into why I don't like Spalding Gray...but I can't really think of anything...I've only watched him once and I wasn't impressed...but then my idea of humor is very skewed...I could watch the 3 stooges and Waiting for Godot and the Dumb Waiter and the Little Rascals BACK TO BACK...and enjoy it so...

  • Feb. 25, 2000, 10:29 p.m. CST

    Yeah, we know, you're the wanker.

    by The Garbage Man

    Stupid Swedish prostitute.

  • Feb. 26, 2000, 2:25 a.m. CST

    The Underneath is a film of murderous visual intensity

    by lickerish

    It could have been silent, and retained it's power. The use of flashbacks which has become a particularly well implemented trademark with Soderberg was outstanding, and it seemed to me, quite risque. I can't recall a film with such strongly acted and paced scenes that the flashbacks, being so profligate, were this coherent. BTW terrific review Alexandra...I personally loved the trailer for Erin Brokovich...the zooms and stills were great...but I had a problem with some of the dialogue..felt it was a bit over the top, with the witty comebacks on Brokovich's part..although I know a number of people, (usually waitress') who speak similiarly..the name Erin Brokovich has a wonderfull metre..great title

  • Feb. 26, 2000, 6:35 a.m. CST

    Damn, I love reading the regular Talkbackers...

    by Nordling

    PLEASE DON"T TAKE OFFENSE, REGULARS - THIS IS JUST MY OWN WEIRD IMAGINATION TAKING OVER - Whenever I see Talkbackers posting, I always have this mental image of them typing away - The Warrior, with his collection of human heads behind him, hidden away in a cabin in Montana, in his camouflage garb typing away with fingers too large for the keyboard but still uses with skill - the same skill that he uses to rip the heads off any who stray down his path in the forest(actually that's probably not far from the truth)... Alexandra, with her not-quite-drag-queen prose... L'Auteur, in some huge ass library with books that he's probably read about 4 times each... ABKing, in his Schwarzenegger/Stallone shrine... Robogeek in some William Gibson meets a feverishly drunken Frank Lloyd Wright throne room... Keep typing away, guys and gals, I love reading you. Oh, by the way, Soderbergh rocks(King of the Hill being my personal favorite, with Out Of Sight not far behind).

  • Feb. 26, 2000, 7:26 a.m. CST

    Soderberg Is Currently My Third Favorite Filmmaker...

    by Buzz Maverik

    Right after Tim Burton and David Lynch and right before Quentin Tarantino, in case you really care and why would you?

  • Feb. 26, 2000, 7:49 a.m. CST

    More on Finney

    by Silky

    Heads up, Stephen Dedalus! Albert Finney is in another current release and indeed is one of the (too)few good reasons to watch the dreadful "Simpatico".(Go to the doller movies for it as I'm sure it will be there by now.) I saw "S***" here in Lexington where most of it was filmed,and we didn't like it much either. Finney is good tho' and Catherine Keener is nice to watch, even though she's trying too hard.

  • Feb. 26, 2000, 9:38 a.m. CST

    What do you see ME as,Nordling?

    by user id indeed!

    Whaddaya think?Am I the mental patient carving names into my arm with a spork I stole from a visitor,or am I more of a CIA agent who dresses like a male prostitute to infiltrate a murder conspiracy in the red light district?Break it to me gently.

  • Feb. 26, 2000, 11:11 a.m. CST

    Are you sure you're not Alex's enemy,SSZero?

    by user id indeed!

    Because yesterday or so you told her to buy a robo-cock to chill her feminist ass.What a lovely friendship.

  • Feb. 26, 2000, 12:23 p.m. CST

    "not-quite-drag-queen prose"?

    by Owatonna

    Duh what? The "toujours" bit was very Del Boy, but that's another story.

  • Feb. 26, 2000, 9:34 p.m. CST

    Steven Soderbergh is my hero because...

    by lostoptimist

    as far as I can tell he discovered Adrien Brody (in King of the Hill) who just may become the second coming of Sean Penn, even his cinematic failures (like Kafka, which took real balls to make) are at least interesting if not always fairly entertaining, he knows how to put a proper ending on a film (Sex Lies and Videotape, King of the Hill and Out of Sight all end perfectly while most movies of today screw it up--Calling Talented Mr. Ripley and Fight Club), but above all else...Because the man puts the crux of the movie (ie the actual story) above everything else. And now, after watching the promos to Erin, I think I may be able to add one more to the list: Persuading Julia Roberts to dress like a stripper even after she has made enough money to the point where she doesn't need to show her cleavage in public ever again.

  • Feb. 26, 2000, 9:54 p.m. CST

    My favorite Albert Finney Movie

    by lostoptimist

    is the tres bizarre 'Looker'. I don't know why and I don't know how but his performace in that movie just sticks with me. I know he's done better stuff but still...dunno. Weird.

  • Feb. 27, 2000, 1:25 p.m. CST

    Bone up on your French, Ms. DuPont...

    by Character Zer0

    Just felt that it's my duty to inform you that "Toujours, Harry" (your greeting) means "always, Harry." "_Bon_ jour" means "hello" or "good day." That's right, I'm the guy with all the answers. That's what I'm here for.

  • Feb. 28, 2000, 8:08 a.m. CST

    Golly Bob Howdy!

    by Eli Cross

    I could simply read the conversation between A. DuPaul and useridindeed all day long. Oh..sorry...I HAVE. Move along, folks. Show's over. Nothing to see here...

  • Feb. 28, 2000, 3 p.m. CST

    Spalding Gray Tangent

    by Duke

    To go off on the Spalding Gray tangent as so many have in this Talk-Back, I must point out that my favorite performance of his was in the wonderful Richard Lewis (yes, I said "wonderful" in the same sentence as Richard Lewis) film, "Drunks." If any of you have not seen it I would recommend it solely for Spalding stumbling into an AA meeting thinking it was choir practice ("wow, so this is AA, I was beginning to think the choir had a LOT of serious problems") and then providing the most sensual description of a glass of beer ever while denying his drinking problem. It's worth the price of a rental.

  • Feb. 28, 2000, 4:27 p.m. CST

    Nordling, you forgot me!

    by Vegas

    Sitting in that little interrogation room, the one bare bulb dangling overhead, typing out my confessions that I can get away with only because no one believes I'd go through with them anyway, not so silently judging all of you (except my friends).

  • Feb. 28, 2000, 6:35 p.m. CST

    Sorry, Vegas...

    by Nordling

    See you this week.

  • March 1, 2000, 4:29 a.m. CST

    King of the Hill

    by Vomit Comet

    King of the Hill was one of the best films of its year, and may have been one of the best of its decade. So, yeah, you found somebody else who liked it.

  • March 1, 2000, 2:39 p.m. CST

    Hollywood Condescension

    by NinerFan

    I saw a clip on Letterman last week and maybe I'm missing something, but it seems rather condescending to the women who work in Albert Finney's office ("the girls"). It sounds as if they are being put down for apparently not being open to Erin's trashy way of dressing in a professional setting. So, she decides to expose her bosom, and we are supposed to instanlty applaud her individuality, while the others are perceived as stodgy and old-fashioned?

  • May 3, 2000, 11:53 p.m. CST

    It was inspirational.

    by Bootz

    Julia Roberts contributes a powerful performance to Erin Brockovich, a story about the exploitation of corporate industry and the ability to overcome personal obstacles in the face of adversity. I thoroughly enjoyed the strength, which was conveyed in the character, and her drive to do what is just and right for the common person. It was uplifting and inspirational to follow Ms. Brockovich

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