We're desperate

Julia Roberts' bid towards becoming, within her stardom, a serious actress - is also Steven Soderbergh's bid towards becoming a serious director (that is to say, a director within the Hollywood system of big budgets, big stars, blockbuster movies). Which is also to say that Erin Brockovich is an example of art by consensus, the kind of movie America told Soderbergh it wanted to see. And it is a fine movie, perhaps the finest example of its kind. But what doesn't it have? It doesn't, as it happens, have intimacy. Its bid towards intimacy is Roberts' relationship with George, the biker next-door. But George isn't so much a biker as an ideal representative of the ideal man for a strong-willed white-trash woman fighting her way, against terrible odds, through the world. He is finely played, by Aaron Eckhardt, but he is a phantom. Rather, he is a mirror image of the character Sam Elliott played in Mask, who was himself a mirror image of other characters. Aaron Ekhardt is handsome, and Julia Roberts is beautiful, and so they love each other. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez were beautiful in Soderbergh's 1998 film Out of Sight, and they loved each other, too. But neither couple was believable. Neither love resembled any sort of love any of us have known.

It is, in fact, impossible to love Julia Roberts, just as it is impossible not to love her. Because Julia Roberts - though I have seen her myself, dressed in black and a black beret standing with a camera outside the office building on Spring and Lafayette Street in which I sit writing this - does not exist. And, in spite of the fantastic performances Soderbergh coaxes from his cast in Erin Brockovich, only one character exists, in any recognizable sense, in the audience's mind: Scott, a clerk so seduced by Roberts that he trips over himself in letting her riffle through his files. Hip in his sideburns and skater gear, Scott resembles nothing so much as the knowing kid sitting in the third row of your standard pre-Brockovich Soderbergh flick. In fact, he looks, in bearing and attitude and attire, a bit like Soderbergh himself. But Roberts is no more real to Scott than she is to the audience. One gets the sense that not many things are real to Scott anymore: At the first sign of pressure from the corporation, he becomes the first to betray Roberts and the individuals she represents. What does Roberts have to say to him? "People are dying, Scott," she says. "You've got document after document here, right under your nose that say why. And you haven't said one word about it. I wanna know how the hell you sleep at night."