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Keith Gordon is the rare filmmaker who turned from acting to directing not to nab a bigger slice of Hollywood pie but to shape stories that interested him, usually stories about desire vs. the responsibilities of political commitment. He is dedicated to those interests to a degree almost embarrassing amid the current requirements for box-office popularity—light, slight, forgettable, cynical, emotionally detached. Gordon will never have a monster hit and will probably not manage to please all of the people any of the time, but for those willing to forgo alienated irony for the kind found in Greek tragedy, and Teflon-coated star power for actors crackling with emotional connection, his impassioned world makes for a fascinating, intense cinematic side trip.

Adapted from Scott Spencer’s book of the same name, Waking the Dead folds back and forth in time as two young lovers meet, link their destinies to each other’s, and try to pursue those destinies after the first flush of love gives way to thorny reality. The film begins in 1974 with Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) learning from the television news that his girlfriend, Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), has been killed in a terrorist car bombing. Fielding, firmly on the ambition track toward, eventually, the presidency, is understandably devastated.

Generally, life is supposed to go on after such a disaster, but Waking the Dead owes little to movie conventions besides the fact that it was filmed. The horror and magnitude of Fielding’s loss become manifest only as the film slowly unfurls, in flashbacks, the details of their connection—its depth, its passion, its sticking points: In 1972, every young person feels pulled by a great destiny, one that would change the world. Fielding and Sarah speak of destiny often. They agree on matter but not on method—he’s a secret liberal who joined the Coast Guard as part of his long-term career plan to make real changes from the inside; she’s a feisty open activist working for his brother’s alternative publishing house.

The couple’s commitment to each other is just as strong as their commitment to causes, and on this score they have no arguments save one, which neither Fielding nor the audience will recognize as disastrous until the end. Fielding, the hard-headed pragmatist, makes a mistake that naive, ardent Sarah does not—he can’t see that he has two destinies: one in love and one in action. With Sarah’s death, he loses the one, only to find that the other is pointless.

The young people’s naivete is amusing at first—charming but exasperating. “Sometimes empty gestures are all we have,” says Sarah, sounding like every idealistic counterculture fool. But after her death, when Fielding pursues the future prescribed to him by his ambitious blue-collar family (Sarah points out that the simple Pierces gave their son a tony WASP name), her words, and the possibility that she spoke in dead earnest, come back to haunt him, as does her placid ghost. Just as his congressional campaign heats up, he begins to see her or one of her avatars everywhere, to hear her voice in the snowfall, to wonder if he is cracking up and whether his life would be better or worse should Sarah still be inexplicably alive.

The very model of the earnest, chiseled-jaw young politician, Fielding kindles the star-making powers of Gov. Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) and attracts Green’s refined niece, Juliet (Molly Parker), who knows a social sure thing when she sees one. The corruption curling Green at the edges and the cultured cocktail-party diplomacy of Juliet stand in contrast to Sarah’s unwillingness to compromise and her gauche behavior as the future congressman’s partner. But Waking the Dead makes no claims for Hollywood-simplistic options—love and obstinacy over solitude and compromise. Fielding believes in transforming the system from within, and it is idealism that drives his ruthlessness—he also thinks his passion for Sarah is compatible with his goals—whereas Sarah attacks the system in a kamikaze firestorm that obliterates the possibility of romantic love. Crudup and Connelly are painfully credible lovers, daring and awkward and vulnerable; they bring this minor-key haunting to raw-nerve life.

Watching Julia Roberts act is like watching Ronald Reagan invade Grenada—neither of these movie stars will make a move without the deck stacked solidly in his or her favor. As a role, Erin Brockovich is as close to a human being as Julia Roberts has ever gotten, but as a film, it leaves nothing, but nothing, to chance. With the coltish beauty being asked to swear, smoke, and speechify, director Steven Soderbergh calms his skittish pony with assurances that she’ll get a carrot and some sugar in each scene, and just to be sure, he’s broken the legs of every other filly in the room.

The story is well-enough known—headstrong single mom in trampy clothes gets a minor law firm interested in a major pollution scandal, takes on Pacific Gas and Electric, wins a record-setting class-action lawsuit on behalf of the residents of Hinkley, Calif., a desert town blighted by groundwater knowingly poisoned by PG&E. Like all Roberts vehicles, it’s a classic story told in classic style so that her chief asset—a kind of beauty that is totally asexual and splendid to the eye, soothing to both men and women—is not obstructed. Her Erin is the spunky little lady we’ve met a thousand times before, plucky and sassy and utterly incapable of failing in her mission, despite a run of bad breaks that makes her even more vulnerable and, yes, deserving. At the same time, Erin is modern enough to sport some of the attributes of the male against-all-odds hero—all this relentless work and late nights spent chasing down injustice alienate the good-hearted fellow who loves her and looks after her kids (Aaron Eckhart as George, one of those sweet, funny, gentlemanly bikers who love to spend their days taking care of other people’s children).

It’s wildly entertaining, a gorgeously crafted piece of filmmaking; Soderbergh is a master of the offhand, and each frame shows it, from the way he chops up minor scenes to amp their feel and personality and play down their content, to the circus act the camera performs to highlight the comic sweetness of Roberts’ spunkily taking samples from the poisoned water. He is never, as the Pet Shop Boys say, being boring, and we are never being bored. But Erin Brockovich is frustratingly overstated in every way. The script constructs a world in which the character is fated to be queen—in the land of the blind, apparently, it helps to have 20/20 vision and a 70-inch telescope lens. Roberts acts like a movie star among mice, which is how she’s cast. In the law office where Erin works for Ed Masry (poor Albert Finney, asked to play to Roberts with the cringing deference of a vaudeville sidekick), she is plainly the only person for whom a paycheck is the difference between her kids eating and going hungry, between paying the phone bill and getting cut off.

No one else is shown to have kids, life pressures, or bad times—or bad manners. Erin throws her three kids in her new employer’s face at every opportunity, sasses him constantly, and extorts a huge raise out of him. She has a ready-made, beautifully constructed speech with badda-boom payoff for every occasion when she needs to give a stuffed shirt or cruising male his comeuppance. And just so we’re absolutely clear on Roberts’ hot body and her character’s I-go-girl willingness to strut it, every other female dresses like an Amish Milton Berle except for the cartoonishly uptight lady lawyer with pinched face and tight hair bun who tells the parents of a cancerous child to recount their story without “sentimental embellishments.” Only a real person like gutsy Erin can relate to the real people of Hinkley.

Throughout, gutsy Julia does turn in her finest performance ever, even if the 10 or 12 nets Soderbergh has stretched below her make some scenes look like parodic fantasies in which “Julia Roberts will play me when they make my life story.” For all its excellence and entertainment value, there’s just too much movie-star perkiness—and love of money, which will not, contrary to Erin’s assurances, triumph over cancer—to validate Erin Brockovich as David-and-Goliath do-gooder thriller; it’s trying too hard to be Roberts’ Oscar vehicle that won’t alienate the fans for whom her smile is sunshine. It’s the feel-good mass-poisoning movie of the year. CP