There’s probably nothing in “Erin Brockovich” that you haven’t
seen before. It’s basically the same story–of a small law
firm taking on a big corporation which, through its pollution
of a local water supply, has caused disease and suffering
among nearby residents–that was told recently in “A Civil
Action,” and many of the same plot elements can also be found
in the still-current tale of tobacco company perfidy, “The

What’s different here is that the instigator of the
investigation isn’t an arrogant, nattily-attired attorney
like “Action’s” John Travolta, or a scruffy newsman like
“Insider’s” Al Pacino, but a scrappy, struggling single-mother-
of-three-darling-kids who’s lovable despite her gruff manner.
In an earlier era it’s a role that might have gone automatically
to Sally Field, but in the current instance it’s been taken
by Julia Roberts, who uses her full repertoire of “Pretty
Woman” tricks to make the title character eccentric but

Of course, what would Erin be without a bumbling but kindly
boss to take the information she collects and run with it in
court? This inevitable part is assumed by Albert Finney, who
mugs the daylights out of it and seems to be having a jolly
good time doing so.

Of course, Roberts needs a romantic interest, too, and in
steps Aaron Eckhart, in his first major mainstream role after
serving as a member of Neil LaBute’s stock company. Eckhart,
usually an edgy, personable actor, is here content to do a
leisurely, unthreatening turn as a most unlikely beau–a much
tatooed, bicycle-riding new neighbor of Erin’s who turns out
to love kids and doesn’t mind taking care of our heroine’s
brood while she’s off battling corporate skullduggery.

By now you should have gotten the idea that “Erin Brockovich”
is pretty pat and predictable stuff, even though it’s based on
a real person and a genuine legal case. Director Steven
Soderbergh does try to liven it up with a few classy edits and
some nifty camera tricks in the first hour or so, but even he
settles into a more ordinary style as the plot goes
formulaically on.

But that’s not to say that the film won’t be a big hit. Julia
may be going through her patented shtick, but as “Notting
Hill” and “Runaway Run” recently demonstrated, audiences still
love it. Finney may mug shamelessly, but he gets the laughs
he’s after. Eckhart may disappoint those looking for his
usual edge, but his artlessness will seem charming to many.
Soderbergh may have sold out to conventionality, but can you
blame him when the grittier, more outrageous tone he brought
to “Out of Sight” apparently doomed that picture’s mainstream
acceptance? And “Erin Brockovich” does boast a solid
supporting cast–even the heroine’s kids are nicely played
by Scotty Leavenworth and Gemmenne de la Pena–including the
always wonderfully seedy Tracey Walker as the man who proves
Erin’s most important informant. In fact, the only obvious
element that the picture lacks is a strong personification of
the villainy that Erin’s fighting: “A Civil Action” had
Robert Duvall, but there’s no equivalent here.

Still, that won’t keep “Erin Brockovich” from succeeding as a
real crowd-pleasing star vehicle. “A Civil Action” and “The
Insider” are both more powerful and impressive treatments of
corporate coverups undone by the judicial process, but you can
bank on the fact that this user-friendly version of the
subject will rake in more receipts than both of them put