Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in Erin BrockovichERIN BROCKOVICH

In director Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich, which is based on a true story, Julia Roberts plays the titular heroine, a divorced, unemployed mother of three, who bullies her way into a job at the law offices of Ed Masry (Albert Finney), the lawyer who previously lost a case for Brockovich.

While in his employment, she stumbles upon a real-estate deal involving a gas and electric plant that, oddly, also contains health records for the local citizenry, most of whom are in very poor health, with more becoming sick by the day. She decides to investigate, and with Masry, they determine that the power company has poisoned the locals and is paying them off to keep the matter quiet. But Brockovich is anything but quiet; she's indignant about the crime, and goes about trying to build a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the company, endangering herself and her family in the process.

We're quite used to this sort of liberal rabble-rouser on the screen, and truth be told, nothing in the film will come as a surprise to you, even if you're unfamiliar with the facts of the case (unless this is the first movie you've ever seen). But what's amazing about Erin Brockovich is that the results are spectacularly enjoyable; it's a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the term, and the most terrific Julia Roberts showcase imaginable.

Roberts has done some fine work in the past few years (particularly in My Best Friend's Wedding), and is always a great camera subject. However, she's generally too Movie-Star-ish for the roles she chooses (which is why she was perfect for Notting Hill and miscast in Runaway Bride last year), and she's certainly not a subtle performer; she's a huge presence, and that can undermine her material and her roles. But here she has hold of a character who is as outsize as Roberts is herself - Brockovich dresses in halter tops and minis, wears too much eyeshadow, and has a propensity for shouting at those who get in her way (with a colorful array of four-letter words), and all this works to Roberts' advantage. Her Brockovich is full of herself and often grating, but she's got charisma, and her natural ebullience gives the film lightness and energy. It's probably the best role Roberts has yet had, and she goes at it with fire and assuredness - it's a star performance all the way, and the movie itself would be the lesser without it.

It helps that she plays so many scenes off of Finney, so relaxed and confident that she's never in danger of being elbowed out of the picture. The scenes between Erin and Ed have the flair of classic bantering between the likes of Hepburn and Tracy (believe it or not, that's not an overstatement); they give the movie a good dose of comedy, and leave you smiling happily during their every encounter. That's a good thing, because the story of the suffering townspeople, though treated with effective simplicity by Soderbergh and screenwriter Susannah Grant, could be unbearable without them. Played by Marg Helgenberger, Cherry Jones, and other talents, the dying citizens have true presence in a way that didn't in something like A Civil Action, where the moral upswing of John Travolta was considered high drama and the suffering of the plaintiffs was brushed aside. Soderbergh and Grant, though, have fashioned a tight legal drama with just enough moments of levity (including a surprisingly touching, though completely clichéd, romance between Brockovich and a sweetheart biker, admirably underplayed by Aaron Eckhart) to make the poignant moments even more forceful. Erin Brockovich isn't a great work by any means - you get the whiff of simplification you get from most true-life stories, and some scenes are naggingly ill-staged - but it's a marvelous popular entertainment, and it gives Julia Roberts a chance to really strut her stuff.


Best Actor winner Kevin SpaceyOSCAR AFTERMATH

As this year's Oscar telecast inched toward the four-hour mark for the second year in a row, you were forced to ask yourself: What the hell was taking so long?

First-time producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck, well-aware of the insane length of last year's show, promised to streamline things this year by removing the always-ghastly dance numbers (Hooray!) and having the Best Original Song nominees all perform one after another, giving the evening one major musical interruption as opposed to the usual five. This did indeed occur, and the first several winners were admirably brief and to-the-point in their acceptance speeches. Even host Billy Crystal kept his opening monologue short.

It soon became clear, though, that the time the Zanucks saved in other areas was going to be used in clips - and endless series of clips. Of course, we had the traditional opening montage with Crystal inserting himself into numerous Hollywood classics (and clever though the gag was, it did go on far too long). And we had the requiem for those who had passed, with clips of some of their famed work. But I still can't figure out the point of that hellishly long montage that Morgan Freeman introduced - not only did the movies shown make no chronological sense, but the only theme on display seemed to be, "Look at us! We're Hollywood! We make movies here!" (Uh... we know... that's kinda why we're watching the show.) And the clips shown for the nominated actors seemed rather lengthy to me this year, and seemed to be made lengthier by that annoying, tortoise-paced crane shot that closed in on every actor's face before their nomination was read, and seemed to suck the suspense out of the categories. Oh yeah, and I thought Warren Beatty would never stop.

No matter. We all made it through. As for the awards themselves, a surprising amount of justice seemed to be served, not just by American Beauty's five wins, but by the Oscars for critics' favorites Hilary Swank and Topsy-Turvy, Sleepy Hollow's Art Direction win, and The Matrix, which had the night's best batting average with four for four, preventing George Lucas' opus from winning anything. And even the evening's goofs turned out to be relatively harmless: Angelina Jolie was less weird than usual; author John irving was incredibly gracious, and brave enough to mention to the voters who remembered only his cute orphans that The Cider House Rules was indeed about abortion; and Michael Caine's fluke win (the least of the nominated supporting actors) at least provided the night's sweetest acceptance speech, where he praised the other nominees with generosity and good humor.

Wait a minute... he rambled on for a helluva long time, too. Ah, well. Hooray for Hollywood.

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