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
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
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 (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.
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
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
(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 (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.