Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
Casting Julia Roberts, then America’s most glamorous actress, as an unemployed beauty queen and single mom on the edge of economic ruin seemed dicey … until director Steven Soderbergh slapped a neck brace on her.
With her immobilized head sprouting upward like a Chia Pet, Roberts flashed a brassy smile that thinned a bit in early moments of 2000’s Erin Brockovich — less a star’s trademark than a desperate mask for a life of eroded confidence, accumulated disappointments and anticipated failures.
Leave it to Soderbergh — at the midpoint of a golden period of five successive modern classics — to ensure Brockovich blended the best of his mainstream and independent sensibilities, catering to a crowd’s emotions and interests rather than condescending to them with simplified pap.
Soderbergh elicited what remains Roberts’ most openly vulnerable, fiercely dynamic performance (a just Oscar winner), as a woman whose vigilance exposed a California utility company’s ecological misdeeds. The masterful Albert Finney co-stars as a lawyer rekindled by the case, but understandably leery of risking his life’s work on it.
Roberts has never been more emotionally fragile or stunning — namely as her voice quivers while demanding that kindly suitor George (Aaron Eckhart) become a presence and not another passerby and during a silent, watery-eyed weighing of her occupational initiative against the seminal moments she’s missing at home.
By concerning itself with truthful consequences of its characters’ self-sacrifices, Erin Brockovich succeeded as a social-issue drama as much about the passion of personal investment as the pursuit of justice.