Julia Roberts plays the real-life Erin Brockovich, back when she was a sweetly trashy unemployed mother of three living in an LA suburb. When Erin's rumpled lawyer Ed (Albert Finney) fails to win her anything in an auto accident case, she demands that he at least give her a job as a file clerk, which he reluctantly does. (Erin, as it turns out, is a hard woman to say "no" to.) One day, while going through a routine real estate case, Erin discovers some medical documents in the folder. She does a bit of investigating and starts to smell a rat: a large public utility company, it seems, may have poisoned the water of the small desert town of Hinkley, California. She shares the news with Ed, who is looking forward to retiring from his law practice but has enough idealism left in him to pursue the case.
It's another all-American David vs. Goliath story, with Goliath played by a nasty corporate giant and David played by Julia Roberts. That said, it's actually solid entertainment. Susannah Grant's script is lean and honest, if a bit over-polished. And director Soderbergh is smart enough to know that he's making a Julia Roberts film, and that her legions of fans won't respond well to his recent experiments in story structure and editing (e.g., The Limey, Out of Sight). So he keeps his eccentricity in check and relies on his other talents: creating a rich atmosphere - you can practically taste the dust blowing across Hinkley's quiet streets - and working with a perfect supporting cast of ordinary-looking folks.
As for the star? Well it's hard to see her as Erin Brockovich, struggling mom, instead of Julia Roberts, insanely popular movie star. Perhaps there can never be any getting around that. And while she's not exactly a bad actress, she is an obvious one. "Subtle character shading" is not her thing, which is she always plays the same bright, brassy, fun gal with a huge heart and a lot of well-directed attitude. Soderbergh lets her do her thing, wisely emphasizing her strengths while downplaying (and even cutting away from) her weaknesses, such as her thousand-yard stare. The end result: it works. Go see Erin Brockovich as a rousing bit of entertainment with an engaging storyline. The film's only real flaw is that its general levity ultimately negates the seriousness of its subject. One walks away thinking that the problems of the world can be easily solved - as long as Julia is there to do the solving.