Julia Roberts is sensational in "Erin Brockovich," the best she's been, by far, since she took the world by storm in "Pretty Woman." In most of those intervening movies - some very good, some very bad - she's been hugely appealing, no matter how dismal the film. ("Mary Reilly," anyone?)
What she hasn't done again in the decade since "Pretty Woman" is present the audience with the whole Julia screen package - humor, pathos, warmth, intelligence, dramatic range and that electrifying sexual charge that she, understandably, doesn't want to tap too often. (For a movie career the magnitude of hers, it's like dipping into capital. Much better to live on the interest.)
Roberts plays a single mother with two small kids who starts out with no job and no prospects other than a legal case over a car accident. When her big mouth and even bigger temper send that case south, she has absolutely nothing but debts and a bursting-flesh Daisy Mae wardrobe that makes Dolly Parton's look positively elegant and upscale.
It's more than enough.
No matter how many prospective employers she tells "I'm great with people. ... I'm an extremely fast learner" (both of which we soon learn are abundantly true), there is no job she can get that she won't skip out on the minute her little son has a 101-degree fever.
Eventually, then, she thrusts her low-cut blouse with the perennially revealed bra straps at her attorney and plead/bullies him into hiring her to do work around the office.
What is brilliant, thus far, about Julia Roberts as Erin is her understanding of women for whom such blatant sexuality is the power tool of last resort.
This isn't Marilyn Monroe (or Dolly Parton) camp you're seeing here, this is a woman who fully understands how dweeby the male sex so often becomes when confronted with such confident and opulently displayed female sexuality.
And even those men who aren't likely to be stupefied by it are likely to be silenced into acquiescence by the raw neediness of it.
For Erin, her clothes are her version of a brisk power suit.
There are women in the real world who do this all the time -- attractive young Hollywood actresses, for instance, who learn to use their sexuality to attract attention, manipulate or intimidate whenever there might be an advantage to it.
It gets better. This isn't a runway show, it's a performance of enormous layered intelligence, the sort of thing an older Hollywood used to fling Oscars at.
Beneath the White Trash Goddess, Erin is every bit as good with people and quick on the uptake as she claims to be -- and then some.
While working on routine stuff for her old attorney, she slowly catches on to a scheme by Pacific Gas and Electric to buy up the property of people whom it has been poisoning by leaking toxic chromium into their water table.
The more Erin investigates, the more harrowing the results of the pollution seem and the larger the potential suit against the public utility.
It's based loosely on a real woman and a real case. Lest it seem all too similar to "A Civil Action," "Erin Brockovich" is a far richer and more appealing film.
It hearkens back to older and far better movies -- most notably Martin Ritt's "Norma Rae" and Mike Nichols' "Silkwood" (with its great script by Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron).
Anyone expecting a radical polemic from this film is, obviously, barking up the wrong box office. This is populist rabble-rousing Hollywood style, for the Black Hat-White Hat entertainment of it, not for the propaganda utility.
It's a first-rate star vehicle. Like "Silkwood" and "Norma Rae," it can't be done in a vacuum.
Just as the stars of those films had Kurt Russell and Cher ("Silkwood") and Ron Leibman ("Norma Rae") to play off, Roberts is singularly lucky to have Albert Finney, as a funky Mojave desert attorney just this side of ambulance chasing and Aaron Eckhart, as Erin's saintly baby sitting biker boyfriend.
No old-fashioned stereotype is allowed to stand for long in this movie. Everything and everyone gets a twist and a tweak. The knobs are dialed toward eccentric realism at every opportunity.
Amazingly, the director of this sure-fire box office bonanza is Steven Soderbergh, whose career, up to now, has been clavicle-deep in ultra-aggressive hipness.
The fact is that between "Pretty Woman" and "Erin Brockovich," Julia Roberts made 16 intervening films without quite making the same sort of impression on moviegoers.
They all put her in the $20 million a film range but until this one they didn't electrify.
If I were she, I'd call Soderbergh at least three times a week and ask: Do you need money? Does your 9-year-old daughter want a pony? Do you ever want me to baby sit? Do you want a Franz Kline or a DeKooning for the living room? Say the word and it's yours.
Soderbergh figured out how best to showcase in every scene the dominant female movie star of her era. ("Julia Roberts Rules" said a recent Newsweek headline so self-evident as to be almost redundant.)
She owes him. Big time.
But then when you see how good she is in "Erin Brockovich," he owes her a thing or two too.
The best way to pay off their mutual debt might be to work together again as soon as possible.
RATING: 4 STARS