There are two ways to primarily think about Erin Brockovich, I believe: one is that it is among the most conventional films in the career of director Steven Soderbergh, which isn't to say that it's really so conventional as all that, but coming sandwiched in his career smack-dab in between The Limey and Traffic, it feels distinctly low in its ambitions, if not its execution. The other way is that this is a Julia Roberts vehicle, and maybe even THE Julia Roberts vehicle, the last big hit sold exclusively on her name after a solid decade of being one of America's hottest stars, and the film for which she won her Oscar (a win I fully support, so let's just get that out of the way now; for I am well aware that the internet in general is pretty down on this particular victory).

What we could not have known in March, 2000, when the film was young, and is perhaps not as obvious even now as it perhaps should be, is that the gap between Erin Brockovich the auteur exercise and Erin Brockovich the star vehicle isn't all that large. There have been few constants in Soderbergh's magpie-like career, but one of the things that crops up again and again is his interest in the concept of who gets to be an actor and celebrity, and what that means. There's the meta-textual games he played with Roberts in 2004's Ocean's Twelve; there's the way that Channing Tatum played a kind of alternate-universe version of himself in Magic Mike; there's the game of putting non-actors front and center in roles that take advantage of their non-acting abilities in The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire; and so it goes in several of his movies.

Erin Brockovich is thus, in a certain light, his attempt to experimentally answer the question, what does it mean to be Julia Roberts in a Julia Roberts vehicle? What we find there ties into one of the greater threads coursing through cinema in the '90s and especially the '00s, which is the changing expectation the audience has in its movie stars. We don't really have them anymore, you know. Movie stars. We certainly have famous people that show up in movies, and they still drive a bit of box office, but huge hits aren't driven by that any more. Visual effects and genres and source novels are the movie stars now. Actors are just frosting, box office-wise.

I have a thought experiment that will probably be rough for a lot of you, because it hinges on a woman who hasn't been a major star since before my parents were born. But anyway, imagine Erin Brockovich as a 1940s movie starring Greer Garson, and that's totally who it would have been - it's right in line with her saintly, save-the-world star persona (not that Garson's home studio of MGM would have been a good fit for the plot, Warner Bros. would be the obvious choice. But Bette Davis as Brockovich is just... no). Now how would Garson have played the role? The same way she played every role: Erin Brockovich would have been the same soft-voiced mothering figure with a steel spine that reveals itself in times of need. That's the woman Garson always played: she could be named Marie Curie, or Kay Miniver, or Edna Gladley, but she was always, first, the woman Greer Garson's fans wanted to see. That was the nature of movie stardom in the 1940s: watching people give variations on a core character, with the really great actors in the bunch (Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart before he said "fuck it" and started playing anti-heroes) standing out because of the gradations they could give to differentiate each one of their roles, rather than because they ever flouted their basic set persona.

Instead of being a '40s prestige picture, though, Erin Brockovich was a crowd-pleasing legal thriller made in the late 1990s. And what makes it a stand-out Julia Roberts performance, an Oscar-winning Julia Roberts performance, a capital-I Important Julia Roberts performance, is that it is an outright subversion of the kind of roles that Julia Roberts had made her career out of. Hewing to the true-life version of the character, Roberts's Erin Brockovich is a foul-mouthed woman perpetually on the verge of pouring out of her tacky clothes; she is fond of brittle sarcasm and screaming at people who dare to be less than 100% in line with her opinions. Hardly America's Sweetheart, but the central aspect of the film in its current incarnation, the characteristic driving all of it, is that it still looks and sounds like Julia Roberts: the same voice, the same big smile, the same perfectly-shaped face. So the appeal is two diametrically-opposed things at once: we get to watch the cute, funny, totally approachable Roberts going about the lightly comic-dramatic material that she has always been best at, while also being totally shocked by the lewdness and anger that completely destroy our sense of what she's "supposed" to be (see also: My Best Friend's Wedding, which does similar things to different ends). She's lovable, but she's also bossy, arrogant, and unthinkingly cruel to her loved ones, and these things do not make her less lovable, but instead make her feel more like a tangible human being.

The result is a perfect marriage of star and role, talent level and requirement of the movie, invisibility in the part and showy mimicry. There is much that is enjoyable and smart about Erin Brockovich, but surely, Roberts is what stands out most, even beyond Soderbergh's quietly perfect re-enactment of the beats and textures of a late-'70s social issues thriller. Which is not, of course, something to discount, for it's the foundation upon which Roberts is able to do her work.

Based on a true story, with moderate fidelity as such things go, Erin Brockovich tells us of a woman with three children by two ex-husbands who badly needs a job in the soft economy of the early 1990s. Erin Brockovich has no demonstrable skills, but she has drive, an uncommon quantity of common sense, and a defiant way of talking, which is how she finagles her way into a position as an assistant at a Southern California law firm under the wry amusement of lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney). It is in this capacity that she uncovers, entirely by accident, a paper trail leading to the town of Hinkley, CA, where a great many people have come down with a great many terrible illnesses. This all tracks back to the chromium-poisoned groundwater, the result of misbehavior at a nearby power plant run by Pacific Gas & Electric. Her rage fired off, and with access to real power for the first time in her life as a member of the put-upon underclass, Brockovich strong-arms Masry into helping the Hinkley residents sue PG&E for damages, against all odds. Since this is a movie based on a true story, it is not terribly surprising that things go well.

It's all a perfectly-balanced concoction, blending angry anti-corporate populism with breezy audience-friendly quips and characterisations, filtered through Soderbergh's steady, controlled formalism. There are so many ways this could have gone terribly wrong, feeling overstuffed and tonally insane - and even in its current state, it returns a little too readily to scenes of Brockovich's thorny domestic life that sometimes go on a little too long - and not many at all that it could be as singularly enjoyable as it is, but that's what committed filmmakers will do for you. Soderbergh's slightly ascetic style, as shot by Edward Lachmann and edited by Anne V. Coates (I confess that I enjoy his movies more when he's doing all three jobs), keeps a certain sense of coolness towards Susannah Grant's rousing, poppy script; while the conventional story beats keep things warm and familiar and not too remote. Which maybe wouldn't be exactly what I'd want, as a Soderbergh junkie (not in 2000, but ever since...), and the parts of the film I am privately most satisfied by are the most auteur-friendly: the mixture of '70s-style realism in the settings, lighting, and camera movement with the director's beloved use of hardened color schemes (without going to any extremes, it's all pushed towards yellow, giving this incarnation of California a dusty, dried-up feel that marries well with the script's overtones of economic despair) especially marks it out as a Soderbergh film.

But it's not an auteurist statement; it's a popcorn movie filtered through a budding auteur's sensibility. Perhaps that's what gives it the very distinct kick it has as a bubbly entertainment. If most of his earlier films are, at some level, an experiment in bending narrative and genre, Erin Brockovich is their polar opposite: it's not a subversive crowd-pleaser but a genuine one, with its stated themes identical to its implications, and all of its subtleties designed to support the main feeling of watching it rather than push it in unexpected directions. But it is a genre experiment even so: a frothy entertainment grounded in real setting peopled by authentic humans whose reactions aren't always quite what we'd predict, and a political movie that actually seems to understand what makes people frustrated and angry at the way things are, rather than congratulating itself for having correct opinions that have been thoroughly validated by history. If Roberts's work here is emblematic of the new challenges facing movie stars in a culture with increasingly complicated expectations for its celebrities, Soderbergh's represents the ideal marriage of the best strengths of '90s indie cinema with Hollywood populism, and in both regards, Erin Brockovich is a shining example of everything promising about American moviemaking as it entered the 21st Century, even if much of that promise would ultimately go unfulfilled.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2000
-What Women Want is, to judge by the box office, Mel Gibson having the ability to peer into their minds
-Cinematographer Roger Deakins, working under directors Joel & Ethan Coen, sort of invents modern post-production digital coloring techniques in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
-Bryan Singer's effects-heavy X-Men film ushers in a wave of superhero epics that continues unabated for... well, at least 15 years, anyway

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2000
-Taiwan native Ang Lee makes the Taiwan/Hong Kong martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for a predominately American audience
-The second golden age of Mexican cinema hits its popular zenith with Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores perros
-Jafar Panahi gets in trouble with the Iranian government for the first of many times with the dangerously feminist The Circle