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Pigeons Home to Roost

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Star vehicle? Erin Brockovich begins with Julia Roberts already in close-up, eyes eager as salesmen in matched gabardine suits, lips vibrant and playful as double-dutch jump-ropes, skin glistening in a perfectly even light, which borrows its tint from the wall behind her, as if she were posed in a photographer's studio. Her oodles of hair--magically brown, blond and red all at once--rise majestically in the pile of a working-class heroine. Her wire earrings take the only form they could: little hearts. Speaking straight to the camera, brightly, twangily, Roberts shares a few personal details in the most disarming fashion, as a way of selling herself.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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A more apt comparison would be between the surviving staff of the satirical magazine and the brave abortion providers who carried on after the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

It seems you're watching a job interview, and Roberts, as the title character, isn't doing so well. Thanks to her candor, you quickly learn she's got three young children, no visible means of support and a wardrobe composed solely of handkerchief-size dresses, as if she'd economized by purchasing only so many square inches of clothes. To her interviewer, the effect is doubly disconcerting. Not only does Erin lack qualifications for the job--she's applying to be a nurse in a medical office, on the strength of having cared for her kids--but she's shown up looking like a cocktail waitress, which makes the male, middle-aged doctor act uncomfortably thirsty.

Later, seeking a payday from an auto accident, she chooses to testify in court wearing a neck brace and a little form-fitting polka-dotted number, with a neckline that plunges to Buenos Aires. Such behavior eventually prompts her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), to challenge her taste in clothes. "I like how I look," she shoots back--which is the correct answer for the character and the correct answer for Julia Roberts. Many, many moviegoers like her to dress this way; and so she does, in a role that keeps her onscreen for virtually the entire length of the film.

Yes, Erin Brockovich is a star vehicle. More than that, it's a perfect match between star and vehicle, with Roberts playing a down-on-her-luck but fiercely determined single mom, who just happens to be a former Miss Wichita. (She still has the tiara and at one point wears it to bed.) While occupying the center of each scene, she gets to be chummy, ingenuous, exasperated, furious, sly, empathetic and at last, following the pattern of Pretty Woman, rich.

And yet there's even more, since Erin Brockovich is a based-on-a-true-story movie. In the early 1990s, the real Brockovich, though unencumbered with a law degree, managed to organize the citizens of a small town to sue a grossly negligent corporation. The plaintiffs won--and so she gave moral and material aid to hundreds of people, while doing a little something for her own family as well.

So now, at a moment when America's corporate apologists are trying to prevent injured citizens from taking to the law, Julia Roberts has marched her stardom squarely into the path of the tort-reform movement. Granting due respect to the differences, I might almost liken her to the fellow who blocked the tanks going into Tiananmen Square. With those legs, she won't be easy to knock down.

In fact--I use the phrase in its strict meaning--Erin Brockovich stands so firmly on Roberts's legs that it can name a corporate bad guy: Pacific Gas & Electric. Let me say that again: Pacific Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric. The movie is so indelicate as to assert, without fear of incurring legal action against Universal Pictures, that PG&E poisoned the residents of Hinkley, California, knew it had poisoned them and actively lied about the poisoning to the victims, who therefore thought their tumors were the fruit of bad luck and so went on drinking carcinogenic water. You can't make this stuff up, nor do you have to.

While Erin is on her way to the rousing conclusion, in which she and many honest citizens collect millions through the courts, she further demonstrates her feistiness through jokey bickering with her boss, played by Finney as a pudgy, gravy-spotted fellow who tends to trip over the file boxes littering his office, so that he spills the take-out coffee that's forever in his mitt. Erin also enters into an affair with her next-door neighbor, George (Aaron Eckhart), who proves to be the nurturing type, despite his bandanna headcloth, Harley-Davidson and broad expanse of chest hair.

It is only one of the film's reversals of expectation when manly George volunteers to care for the kids so that Erin may pursue a profession. A more subtle reversal: Although Erin uses her body as if she'd seen Pretty Woman and meant to emulate its heroine, she doesn't spend much of her time in bed. When she needs to get access to a trove of documents, she distracts their guardian by leaning forward and squeezing her elbows to her sides, making her breasts the most animated to be seen since Jessica Rabbit's; when her boss issues one of his gruff reprimands, her reflex is to taunt him sexually; but when she comes home at midnight for the 128th day in a row, she discovers that George has packed his bag, having gone untouched for too many months.

A further reversal: Even though Erin begins the picture by talking about her children, even though she's shown making sacrifices for them (including going hungry), she is capable of neglecting the kids, once she's found paying work and an outlet for a formidable mental energy. Sure, she's warm and caring; that's why the residents of Hinkley trust her. But for all that, the film, with a knowing grin, lets us identify her main sources of pleasure: intellectual stimulation and a whole lot of money.

Though it's overly fond of connecting dots, Susannah Grant's screenplay provides an efficient enough plan of action for the movie. The responsibility for realizing that plan, and for putting life on the screen, falls to Roberts, of course, and to the director, Steven Soderbergh. He's always found exhilaration in scenes where women assert themselves--think of Andie McDowell grabbing the camera in sex, lies & videotape, or of Jennifer Lopez kneecapping a bad guy in Out of Sight--and so he seems utterly assured in directing Roberts through her star turn. He's also developed a masterly repertoire of editing tricks, which speed the action through those connected dots. The image of the present scene overlaps with sound from the next, to help you bound over the transition; a scene of courtroom testimony breaks apart into multiple viewpoints, varied and rapid; several days of job hunting turn into a montage of Los Angeles locations. In his sleights of hand, Soderbergh is so deft that he even makes it look as if he'd truly risked Julia Roberts in a staged car wreck.

She's far too valuable to endanger, of course. And I don't for a moment imagine she might suffer for her present stand in endorsing a citizen's right to sue. But let's be as hardheaded as Erin Brockovich herself, or the film that bears her name. This is how some women get things done in America: through the use of whatever they've got. If neither the star nor the character wins a halo at the end, that's just fine, because they didn't ask for one. Money will do--money, and a little justice.

* * *

If you've been hoping to see a mad compendium of disaster photos, pigeon races, baton-twirling and competitive door-opening, shot in black and white, and starring Belgium's most vituperative actor, have I got the picture for you. It's Benoît Mariage's The Carriers Are Waiting, now making its way around the US art-house circuit.

The splendidly explosive Benoît Poelvoorde plays Roger, paterfamilias and police-beat photographer for the inappropriately named newspaper L'Espoir. Confined to a damp-looking brick rowhouse in a terminally decrepit industrial town, Roger has pinned his own hopes on his children, from whom he is demanding a proof of love as the film begins. He asks them for one thing, just one thing: a new car. And they can win one for him! Just enter the Guinness Book of World Records contest. Surely there's some record they can break. Here--the record for opening a door! Just open a door and step through 41,828 times within twenty-four hours, and the car will belong to Roger!

Having set forth this unhinged premise, The Carriers Are Waiting proceeds to follow the training of Roger's teenage son, Michel (Jean-François Devigne), who is coached for the competition using certifiably American methods. These involve practicing in the rubble-strewn backyard, giving rise to an image of certifiably Belgian Surrealism: a repeated passage through a freestanding doorframe, which is connected to nothing and leads nowhere. Meanwhile, little sister Luise (Morgane Simon) is drawn toward a similarly obsessed character: next-door-neighbor Felix (Philippe Grand'Henry), a guy who looks like Jimmy Stewart's dimwitted younger brother, works in a cork-making factory and devotes his life to his pigeons.

The Carriers Are Waiting eventually turns into a kind of shaggy-papa story, in which the bully of love becomes almost lovable. But fortunately, there's more fang than hair to this movie. While on your way toward the benign ending, expect to feel the nips of a genuinely sharp humor.

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