Based on a true story, Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich recounts what went on behind the largest settlement ever paid in an American direct-action lawsuit in 1996. The eponymous Erin (Julia Roberts), a single mother of three, struggles to feed herself and her brood, finding work in a small Los Angeles law firm run by Ed Masry (Albert Finney). While there, she stumbles upon some medical records mysteriously placed in real-estate files. This leads her to find a cover-up involving contaminated water in a local community which is causing severe health problems for its residents. After two failed marriages, and no money or career to speak of, this ex-beauty-pageant queen finds a real purpose in life as she goes after the truth with pit-bull determination. Her efforts eventually result in $333 million being awarded to the victims by titan company PG&E.

Erin Brockovich combines the intensity of a whodunit with the scrappy, ingratiating flavor of one of those old working-girl comedies featuring Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur or Ginger Rogers. Soderbergh cannily uses a fluid, sometimes handheld camera to give further immediacy to the story. The movie, photographed by Ed Lachman, has a sun-bleached, arid look to it that feels absolutely right. Anne V. Coates' editing is bone-cuttingly sharp. Susannah Grant and Richard LaGravenese's script expeditiously delivers the dry facts while spicing things up with the blistering profanities that Roberts' blue-collar character zingily delivers. Erin, a survivor, is ever on the move, five steps ahead of anyone else, and her impatience with the fubsy ways of Masry and various other legal eagles manifests itself in some juicy put-downs which leave grown men reeling in her wake. The romantic subplot involving a dreamily supportive, Harley-riding, good-old-boy neighbor (Aaron Eckhart) is rather extraneous and lends unnecessary length to this cracking good yarn. But that's small potatoes compared to what Soderbergh and Roberts have achieved.

This is assuredly Roberts' strongest outing yet. She obviously relishes playing this particular underdog and she's never been more intelligent, likeable, sexier or funnier. Outfitted in some va-va-voom ensembles-you wonder how she affords them, but this is about the only Hollywood license taken-she remains a glory to behold and her comic timing is as fresh as ever. In the heavier moments, confronting the ravaged victims of chromium-poisoned water, her eyes register emotion with an animal purity. She's wholly convincing as a mother, as well. (One of the film's many considerable pleasures are the shots of her merely holding her unbearably adorable baby girl.) As you watch her ordering a meal for her children in a coffee shop (but none for herself) without any obvious 'acting,' she simultaneously makes you understand what it is to be in her shoes, and breaks your heart. It's become an accepted reaction among many to groan over both her and Meg Ryan's undiminished screen popularity, but the simple fact remains that each of them, while perhaps somewhat limited in range (like most true stars), were nonetheless born for the camera, purely cinematic forces of nature. One needs only to see Madonna's undiminished stiffness in The Next Best Thing to really appreciate the gifts of both actresses.

Finney is better than he's been in years, simpler, quietly funny and, like everyone else, somewhat understandably in thrall to Erin's force. Cherry Jones and, especially, Marg Helgenberger bring welcome strength and dignity to their roles as dupes of corporate malfeasance. As Erin's kids, Scotty Leavenworth and Gemmene De la Pena attest to Soderbergh's directorial strength with their utter believability and lack of rote cutesiness.

--David Noh