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Friday, June 9, 2000


More than one way to skin the fat cats

Corporate malfeasance is the flavor of the month at Tokyo cinemas, with both "The Insider" and "Erin Brockovich" telling real-life tales of lone-wolf crusaders who expose cancer-causing conspiracies. But all similarities end there, for "The Insider" and "Erin Brockovich" are very different films, both in style and content, but most of all in their priorities.

Easily the better of the two, Michael Mann's "The Insider" -- his first film since 1996's "Heat" -- is certainly not what we've come to expect from this director; while it's a taut, suspenseful thriller, there's barely an action sequence to be found. Nevertheless, with cinematographer Dante Spinotti's smooth, choreographed camera-work, Mann takes us through each scene with an unremitting intensity.

While "The Insider" has a fascinating story of coverup and crime to tell, central to the film are a pair of astounding performances from Al Pacino and Russell Crowe ("L.A. Confidential"). While Crowe has always been good at brute physicality (see "Gladiator," opening next weekend), he takes on another extreme here, playing Jeffrey Wigand, a downsized and embittered tobacco industry researcher.

In a transformation as impressive as Robert De Niro's in "Raging Bull," Crowe appears to have aged 20 years overnight. Overweight, introverted, with graying hair and a wearied demeanor, his every movement and word suggest a nearly defeated man, a nebbish yearning for payback, but scared to make the move.

Trying to convince Wigand to go public with his insider info -- that tobacco industry execs perjured themselves before Congress, and had been secretly designing more addictive cigarettes -- is investigative journalist Lowell Bergman (Pacino), a producer on the CBS news program "60 Minutes." Pacino is best when he's not in shout mode, and fortunately, that's the case here. He brings passion and intensity when needed, but is equally adept at showing the charm, stubbornness and manipulation of an ace journalist.

Bergman realizes he's uncovered a bombshell of a story, and wants to air it, but there's one little problem: a confidentiality agreement that Wigand signed with his former employers. Wigand is loathe to break it, fearing their wrath. But once he's persuaded to talk, on air, about what he knows, a fresh obstacle arises: The higherups at CBS, threatened with a lawsuit by the tobacco industry (and an intimidating lawyer played by Gina Gershon), decide to kill the story, over Bergman's heated objections.

The story is a complex tale of conspiracy, mixed loyalties and confused motivations. Wigand is no knight in shining armor, just a disgruntled employee. Mann milks this situation for every ounce of suspense: Wigand's vacillating over whether or not to testify is played out to the last possible moment.

As in "Heat," Mann is concerned with hard-core professionals who will stick to their principles no matter what. Wigand is deserted by his wife and kids, and Bergman is hung out to dry by his bosses at CBS, but neither man backs down from his initial position: Wigand, revenge for his betrayed loyalty; Bergman, his dedication to that elusive grail of journalism, "the truth." Victory comes, but at great personal cost.

Director Stephen Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich," in contrast, is a simplistic fable of an infallible supermom who champions the "little people" against the big, bad corporation, and -- echoing capitalism's illusory promise of enlightened self-interest -- makes a buck doing it.

The film follows unemployed single mom and former beauty queen Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) in her futile attempts to find employment. When cleavage and foul language don't work, she literally harangues curmudgeonly lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) into giving her an office job. Masry is hoping to get strident, tactless Erin out of his life as soon as possible, but reconsiders that when she resourcefully digs up some dirt on Pacific Gas & Electric.

It turns out that PG&E had been allowing chromium 6 to leak into the local water supply of Hinkley, Calif., for years, resulting in a plague of cancers. A law suit is filed, and it's bimbo Brockovich -- not the "city slicker" lawyers -- who's the only one who can keep the case on track, presumably because the working class people of Hinkley trust her as "one of their own."

In the end, as in real life, the lawyers procure a $333 million settlement for the victims. Erin is beaming as she receives a bonus of $2 million from Masry; but lest we forget that she's supposedly doing this for the greater good, a final scene has her presenting a $5 million check to a hapless cancer victim. Happy end; roll the credits.

But wait a minute. As a recent report on Salon.com revealed, much of what happened after this point undercuts the sense of justice and victory that the film implies. That victim with the $5 million check claims -- in real life -- to have received nothing close to that amount from Brockovich and Masry, a claim echoed by many of the plaintiffs.

As one Hinkley resident, who is reluctant to join the lawsuit, tells Erin, "You people give a sh** as long as you get what you want." How prophetic. In the film, that client is eventually won over by Erin's charm and integrity. No doubt now, in real life, she can't get her phone calls demanding clarification of the low settlement figures returned, while Erin is off doing Oprah, and Masry and friends have at least $143 million in the bank.

Unlike "The Insider," there can be no flawed heroes here: "Erin Brockovich" is, at all times, first and foremost a star vehicle for Julia Roberts, making her out to be the Joan of Arc of class-action lawsuits. Sure, she has her flaws, but they are audience-friendly ones such as telling off her bosses with coarse language, or dressing like a tramp to work. Indeed, the series of outfits Erin/Julia gets to wear through the film -- leather miniskirts, pin heels, wantonly low-cut blouses -- may bear some relationship to the real Brockovich's risque sense of fashion, but one can't escape a feeling of deja vu -- "Pretty Woman" does torts.

Indeed, the entire film, at every moment, seems designed to fawn over its star. When Julia/Erin interviews the cancer victims of Hinkley, the camera constantly cuts away to show her attentive concern, that practiced talk-show host look of feigned compassion. And for all the film's claims to feminist PC in the way it portrays a spunky working mom, look a little deeper: Every other working woman in the film is presented as a frumpy, backbiting bitch. Only drop-dead gorgeous Julia is portrayed in a positive light. What kind of message is that? A bogus one, that's what.

Stephen Soderbergh has been the critics' flavor-of-the-month since "Out of Sight," a sturdy Elmore Leonard adaptation that showed Soderbergh to have an easy, naturalistic touch in directing his star power. He's met his match with Roberts, though: This film feels about as sincere as an apology from Prime Minister Mori.

"The Insider" is showing at Shibuya Hermitage and other theaters. "Erin Brockovich" is showing at Tokyu Bunka Kaikan in Shibuya and other theaters.

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