She Doesn’t Have a Résumé, but She’s Got Other Assets

Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich , from a screenplay by Susannah Grant and Richard La Gravenese (who is uncredited), manages to deliver a juicy morsel of message entertainment without getting its fingers sticky with old-fashioned underdog sentimentality. Based on a true story, the film shows its title character protagonist taking on Pacific Gas & Electric, a $30 billion utilities company, and legally compelling it in 1993 to pay 600 victims of its toxic pollution of a California community’s water supply the sum of $333 million, a record settlement for a case of its kind.

Erin is portrayed with reported fidelity to the real-life original by the irresistibly irrepressible Julia Roberts as a salty-tongued, twice-divorced mother of three young children. Her costume du jour features considerable cleavage and leggy exposure. In short, the lady dresses, acts and talks like a tramp. Ms. Brockovich herself makes a cameo appearance as a waitress in a luncheonette and reveals herself to be a tall blonde looker in her own right.

On screen or off, Erin’s judicial triumph is all the more remarkable in that she never had any formal education as a lawyer or even a paralegal. Indeed, she is the newly fashionable feminist heroine, the single mother who dropped out of school early to get married, and then found herself stranded with no career or even job skills when her husband(s) abandoned her. Erin’s is happily one of the rare cases of a virtually impoverished single mother getting a second chance to show she had the right stuff though she had to beg for a menial job with no benefits just to get her foot in the door.

When she discovers many medical reports mixed in with real estate transactions for a pro bono case her firm has undertaken, she visits the small California desert town of Hinkley, dominated and befouled by the massive installations of P.G.&E. There she meets cancer-ridden Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger) and her similarly afflicted family. Erin’s down-to-earth manner enables her to bond with Donna, and the other Hinkley inhabitants and even the initially hostile Pamela Duncan (Cherry Jones), who has become suspicious of all strangers after having been shamefully deceived by P.G.&E.

There is a nice balance in the film between the social issues and the human relationships, which is to say that Mr. Soderbergh and his collaborators stay out of the courtroom as much as possible while they explore with scrupulous detail the different places where people live and work. The feeling of moral triumph is expressed with a minimum of fuss and fanfare, quietly from person to person. Victory does not come easy for the hard-working Erin. She neglects her children, and they become distractingly unruly. She risks losing her on-again, off-again boyfriend, a biker next door named George (Aaron Eckhart), even after he displays a remarkably paternal solicitude for her children. More than once, she steps on the toes of her cranky but warmhearted benefactor employer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney). Yet even when Erin is on a self-destructive streak of hot-tempered profanity, she never becomes irritating or aggravating, simply because she never ceases to be self-mockingly funny. Her familiarly volcanic big-star smile is as joyous as ever, and takes much of the curse off the white-hat, black-hat melodramatics.

It helps that all this really happened, but it helps even more that the aptness of the casting served to breathe independent life into the character. Ms. Roberts, Mr. Finney, Mr. Eckhart, Ms. Helgenberger, Ms. Jones and all the other players fit seamlessly into the fabric of the film. We get the best of independent cinema and the best of mainstream cinema all in one package. Erin Brockovich , like Wonder Boys right before it, makes the year 2000 seem increasingly promising for movies. People haven’t forgotten how to make good movies after all, the more rabid nostalgia merchants to the contrary notwithstanding.

Mother Mystery

Ismail Merchant’s Cotton Mary , from a screenplay by Alexandra Viets, is set in postcolonial South India (Kerala) in the 50′s, and focuses on the social and cultural complications posed by the “Anglo-Indians,” the displaced products of once-encouraged intermarriages between the English occupiers and their colonial subjects. Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), an Anglo-Indian nurse in an old British hospital, enters the lives of a British family named MacIntosh when the wife, Lily (Greta Scacchi), gives premature birth to a dangerously sick baby and is medically incapable of breast-feeding her child. Mary takes charge of the situation by taking the baby to her crippled sister Blossom, who is a wet nurse in a nearby Alms house that was once an integral part of the Anglican Church in colonial India. The Anglo-Indian ladies in attendance revive old memories of the Raj with the arrival of an English child to be served. Blossom’s milk saves the child, and Mary is given the credit by Lily, with the result that Mary is hired as a nanny.

Lily is particularly dependent on Mary because her own BBC correspondent husband, John (James Wilby), is away so much of the time, and seems curiously uninterested in Lily, their 7-year-old daughter Theresa, and even the new baby. Significantly it was Theresa who had to run through the turbulent town to find help at the hospital for her pain-wracked mother. But Lily herself is far from being a devoted mother. Gradually, Mary seeks to increase her influence in the household by undermining the loyal family servant Abraham until he is unfairly discharged.

Against the background of lost Anglo-Indian status, Mary’s treacherous maneuvering takes on a double signification in that she is unsympathetic and even malignant on the level of melodramatic narrative, but is at least understandable as a pathetic casualty of history. Mary is actually fighting a two-front war, the first in the MacIntosh household where she hopes to reign supreme, and the second with her sister Blossom and the other ladies of the Alms house over their desire to be directly recognized by Lily as the saviors of her baby.

The plot thickens when John MacIntosh allows himself to be seduced by Mary’s Anglo-Indian niece Rosie (Sakina Jaffrey). Mary is furious with Rosie not so much for her immorality, but rather for her jeopardizing Mary’s dominant role in the family household. Thus begins the downward trajectory of Mary’s pitiful plan to restore some small sector of Anglo-Indian eminence in the MacIntosh household. In a scene that belongs in a horror movie, Mary borrows Lily’s clothes to pose at least at a distance as Lily paying a visit to the Alms House to have tea with Blossom and the other ladies. After all, Mary had promised Blossom that Lily would come even though she knew that Lily, like all the English still remaining in India, had no more need for the Anglo-Indians, and therefore were no longer obliged to recognize them socially.

In the end, Lily and her children leave India forever, John abandons Rosie, and Mary goes mad, less sure than ever about who she is and what she represents. Lily is not much better off in her slow awareness that her own weaknesses as wife, mother and mistress of a household has helped cause so much human wreckage. It is a heart-rending portrait of two misguided women brought to luminous life by the magnificent performances of Ms. Jaffrey and Ms. Scacchi.

Swingers Sr.

David Schisgall’s The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs doesn’t say it all in the title. The suburbs here are not Greenwich, Scarsdale or the Hamptons. And we are not dealing primarily with young and slightly older marrieds who toss their car keys in a communal bowl for a grown-up version of spin-the-bottle as in Ang Lee and James Schamus’ The Ice Storm (1997). The self-proclaimed “swingers” in The Lifestyle movement in Mr. Schisgall’s thoughtful in-depth study presents an older and less photogenic mix of faces and bodies than the more lecherous among us would long to peep at. As Mr. Schisgall observes: “Most couples in The Lifestyle are between 40 and 65. Some are over 65-but these people began swinging in their late 40′s and continued for life. The Lifestyle seems to work better for people who have been together a long time and have finished child-rearing.”

I must confess that those being interviewed were much more appealing and revealing than the naked, piledriving bodies. I liked their frankness and humility. There is nothing elitist about what is estimated as a 3 million-person army with clubs in every state except North Dakota. Many of the testimonies reflected in the non-high-tech boredom of ordinary lives, particularly after the children have grown up and left the nest. Though there is no mention of Viagra, many senior citizens have decided not to go quietly and chastely into that final darkness.

The one younger couple in the film decided to drop out when they decided that “swinging” placed too great a strain on their marriage. Indeed, the older swingers make it clear that their own children should forgo the Lifestyle until they have been married a long time, and their children have grown.

Some curious ground rules for this ostensibly liberated and libertinish movement include no use of drugs and only moderate consumption of alcohol, no male homosexuality because it is too threatening to straight men, but tolerance of lesbian lovemaking-much the same double standard that is applied to general-audience pornography. Also, in the age of AIDS, condoms have become mandatory.

It’s not for me. But why not for others? I do share one erotic extension of the Lifestyle, and that is the predilection for delicious food as an aphrodisiac. In New York, particularly, food is sex, and even we nonswingers can’t get enough of it.