Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.
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.