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by James Arnold

Smart, Sassy and Stand-Up

ERIN BROCKOVICH

ERIN BROCKOVICH (A-3, R): Pop culture gets slammed often enough by moralists, so it’s only fair to note those times when all the commercial ingredients come together and benefit social justice. A few million more will see this film and be moved by the environmental struggle against corporate greed simply because it’s also an entertaining Hollywood story.

Not only is the heroine a good woman, a caring single mom, an underdog, a battler who triumphs against evil and impossible odds. But she’s also pinup-girl sexy (played with gusto by Julia Roberts). This is a smart, sassy woman who stands up for the mistreated and abused common folks. She kicks the tar out of the country’s most despised contemporary villains: fat-cat polluters and stuffy, overpaid, overeducated lawyers.

That it’s all based on fact doesn’t hurt. By now Brockovich, the dedicated single mom with a penchant for provocative clothing and brash nonstop conversation, has become TV famous. Her achievement was ultra-serious. She did the hard investigative work that allowed a small Los Angeles law firm to win a multimillion-dollar suit against a rich corporation. Her clients were more than 400 people in a California desert town stricken by misery and disease caused by an out-of-control industrial chemical.

But it’s even better than that, since Erin starts from ground zero, unemployed and feeling unemployable. She’s not so unusual a woman in contemporary America—a divorced mom with kids to raise and no special job skills. After worse luck (losing a traffic-accident suit), she charms a marginal job as a researcher out of her unhappy attorney (delightfully befuddled Albert Finney).

Digging into an apparently minor case, Erin works hard, follows her instincts and discovers serious duplicity in which the victims don’t really understand what has hit them. She has drive but, above all, compassion—enough to give the movie substance.

Brockovich is in the tradition of flicks about idealistic blue-collar women battling well-heeled capitalists (Norma Rae, Silkwood, Country). Erin’s character gives it a bit more spice and pop charisma: more David vs. Goliath, justice vs. arrogance, working class vs. privileged class, underrated girl vs. overrated boys.

She’s not the ideal hero, but her faults, compared to her virtues, are minor. Director Steve Soderbergh makes his third strong film in a row (Out of Sight, The Limey), with a Capra-esque view of people as courageous, decent and worth caring about. Problem language, adult content; satisfactory for mature viewers.

KEEPING THE FAITH

KEEPING THE FAITH (A-4, PG-13) is a New York story about three inseparable kid pals (two boys and a girl) who grow up into a romantic triangle. The twist is that the guys are now a newly minted priest (Edward Norton) and a rabbi (Ben Stiller). The gentile girl (Jenna Elfman) is a sleek, corporate superwoman who seems without spiritual values.

Religious complications add to the usual genre rivalries, mixups and mishaps. The situation is full of potential traps, sometimes fallen into. But it’s hard to get really mad at a Y2K-era movie with sincere and likable clerics as heroes.

This Stuart Blumberg script is really a Jewish story, built around the comic problems of the handsome, unmarried rabbi. The mothers in the temple congregation want Stiller’s Jake to date their daughters. The elders (Eli Wallach, Ron Rifkin) and especially Jake’s own mother (Anne Bancroft) seem sternly determined to have him marry in the faith.

But Jake follows his own path and romances the chic blonde Anna. The affair is tastelessly physical as in most movies: Jake is religious, but Blumberg clearly doesn’t want to make him a saint.

Norton’s Father Brian is not really a serious contender. He’s an active, cheerful, enthusiastic, compassionate priest (with an obviously broadly overdone drinking habit). He’s having no trouble with celibacy (as he explains to Anna in a memorable dialogue in Central Park).

But he weakens when he comes to think that she loves him. He’s saved by both reality and wise advice from an older cleric (played by Academy Award-winning Czech-born director Milos Forman), who tells him that commitment to celibacy is a choice made “over and over every day.”

Faith is also directed by Norton (Everyone Says I Love You), a bright Yale grad who may top the incoming generation of young actors. (He dedicates the film to his mother, who died at 54 and “had faith in everyone.”) His best touch is the use of character actors—an Indian bartender befuddled by Brian’s problems, an over-the-top exercise maven Jake dates, an irrepressible Asian who’s trying to sell the guys expensive karaoke equipment for their youth club.

There is some churchy humor (Brian sets fire to his cassock while using a censer and then jumps into the holy-water font), but it’s mostly Going My Way stuff. The real religion-relevant subject is young people trying to adapt their staid traditional churches to an increasingly multicultural world. One suspects more will be said, more profoundly, on that problem. But let’s face it: It won’t be said in movies. Rabbi’s sexual affair and situations restrict it to mature audiences.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (A-3, R): A tough Marine hero faces a court-martial for giving his men orders to fire on civilian rioters (83 are killed and many are wounded in an improbable massacre) outside the U.S. embassy in Yemen.

Despite the apparent slaughter, the hard guy proves to be a good guy, reversing the recent tradition (from Caine Mutiny to A Few Good Men and American Beauty) that career officers are nutsy fruitcakes. (The villains now are the civilian officials trying to cover up their own guilt.)

Moral and political issues are not the movie’s strong suit. There’s some confusion because the Yemenis, even women and kids, appear to be hard-line terrorists. A Vietnam flashback seems even to justify blowing out the brains of a POW as a part of soldiering amid a combat crisis.

What’s left is a predictable courtroom drama, with wily underdog defense attorney and retired Marine Tommy Lee Jones. (He “went to Georgetown Law after retirement and became a cynic.”) He battles brilliant young hotshot prosecutor Guy Pearce, who seems to hold all the cards.

The actors, including Samuel L. Jackson as the unmarried, patriotic 30-year warrior defendant, manage to be intense and moving. Ben Kingsley and Anne Archer are duplicitous for different pragmatic reasons in their portrayals of the ungrateful diplomat couple saved by Jackson’s heroics.

Director William Friedkin was once a Hollywood force (The Exorcist, French Connection) but has been stalled since the mid-1980’s. Here he returns with some flash and indulges us with two long battle sequences (Yemen and Vietnam) and an extended tour alone by Jones into Yemen (locale is Morocco), looking for evidence that arouses some doubts and goosebumps. O.K. suspense but morally thin; for mature audiences.

THE CORNER

THE CORNER (HBO miniseries): There are difficulties in talking about TV as if it were monolithic, one thing with usually negative characteristics, like distracting, escapist, shallow, biased, capitalist, amoral. At times it’s each of these things.

Consider the Sunday night in April when HBO debuted this six-part weekly dramatic hour about the struggles of drug addicts in Baltimore’s inner city. (It’s fictionalized but based on gritty realities described in a book by David Simon and Edward Burns.) It’s probably not (like HBO’s prison-drama series, Oz) what most viewers want to settle down with at the end of a weekend. But it’s a rare show that fulfills one of the important roles of art: taking us somewhere we don’t want to go but should go—if we’re to be good citizens, not to mention Christians—but wouldn’t search for on our own.

Perversely, it was slotted right after Sex and the City, HBO’s fantasy soap about some young Manhattan women and what passes for their love lives. After that, The Corner is some dose of reality. (Both carry the TV-MA rating, which tells you something about ratings.)

During the Corner hour, there were other attractive options. Most notably (at least for families, rated TV-PG), there was the new “David Copperfield” on Masterpiece Theater (PBS). You didn’t get Charles Dickens’s detail and language, as you did when you read it, but you got the knockout acting, and the costumes and decor. What a marvelous tale! At the same time and on the same night was the Discovery Channel’s inventive, three-hour Walking With Dinosaurs, the new CBS movie version of William Inge’s Picnic, an all-star (Elton John to Tony Bennett) tribute to Joni Mitchell (on TNT) and the millionth rerun of Cecil B. DeMille’s overblown biblical movie classic The Ten Commandments (on ABC).

All this stuff simultaneously, of course, can be frustrating. No known technology could tape them all. HBO, TNT and Discovery, like many cable outlets, offered convenient reruns. But a rational person would have to concede TV was a useful alternative to schmoozing or bowling that night.

As for The Corner, it’s not a fun program to watch. But the pain is mixed with humor and humanity. We focus on Gary and his wife (high-voltage Khandi Alexander) and teenage son, whom we’d otherwise never know existed. The “corner” is where people hang out, where they make money by taking copper pipes from basements and selling them, where the addicts cheat each other, where the young begin to lose their lives, selling the stuff to pseudo-cool whites who drive up in cars and quickly leave for some better place.

Cash—right now—is the lifeblood of this little world. A scene that gives new meaning to traumatic: Gary (a once respectably successful 30-year-old achingly well played by T. K. Carter) can only afford to buy cigarettes at the Korean grocery one at a time for 25 cents. The price goes up to 35 cents, and he can’t make it. He’s on the floor of the crowded jail bullpen when the first episode ends. More than a cautionary tale, it makes you care and it breaks your heart.

 

 


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