The circumstances surrounding the genesis and delivery of Steven Soderbergh's new film Bubble—shot on hi-def as the first of six low-budget experiments and then distributed simultaneously to theaters, cable and DVD—will doubtlessly constitute the why of it, as the movie itself waits mopily for attention like an ugly child. "Consumers," the press kit says, "will truly have their choice of how" to see Bubble; nowhere in the backstory does anyone ask "whether." Of course, we should care only about what's on-screen, and Soderbergh, as adept at exploiting his Hollywood cachet for low-budget purposes as Gus Van Sant, should know that. Shot in a depressed West Virginia sub-suburbia of trailer homes, aging minor industries, and fast food, and utilizing only nonprofessional actors, Bubble is Soderbergh vying for a local purity he doesn't have rights to. Which isn't, alone, too terrible, even if the movie strives for the back-to-the-soil integrity of Springsteen's harmonica albums but seems afraid to bare its soul. Is minimalism as easy as Soderbergh thinks it is? Bubble seems deadly accurate in its capture of heartland small talk, but it's also spectacularly enervated, an affected zombie diorama of low-rent American life that somehow doesn't mock or condescend to its characters. Fine, but what does it do?
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Hard to say: Soderbergh, an academic-class Southerner, keeps a stranglehold on his working-class people; no one in Bubble ever cracks a joke, or taps a toe. His launchpad is a sweet and thoroughly exploited metaphor: a six-man doll factory we see at work in fascinating detail. (Casting rubber torsos, airbrushing lips, squeezing the bald heads grotesquely so eyeballs can be popped in—try and resist the radiant vision of a tabletop filled with chubby baby legs.)
Coleman Hough's screenplay is so sparse that the machinery and disassembled plastic infants could come off as a tumid flourish, but it's the movie's most disquieting and beautiful idea. Working there are Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a taciturn twentysomething whose only glint of individualism is the joint he secretly smokes in his bedroom, and Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a motherly, obese middle-aged redhead seemingly content with her blue-collar situation. Carpooling, the two bond by way of ritual and idle chat, until the shop hires a new hand, Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a young, willowy single mom who, we're led to suspect by Martha's watchful eyes, represents a threat to the co-workers' stasis.
There is, eventually, a crime and an investigation, by which time either we are charmed by the metronomic textures or have given up hope. Soderbergh's restrained, near motionless style (he shot and cut the film under pseudonyms) is never as arid as the relationships; the three stars are all perfectly naturalistic, but their roles are too bloodless and their patter too dry. The title's "bubble" may well be the swelling chaos, heading for a burst, underneath the relentless flyover politeness (the "sure will, huh-huh!" inflections used for yuks in Fargo, four states away). But that equation is cheap, and Bubble's expression of class inequity, despite Martha's awestruck tour through a McMansion, never comes to a head. Thrifty but also skimpy at 73 minutes, Soderbergh's movie ambitiously focuses on movie-rare Americans (never in this country has a film occupied itself so steadfastly with someone like Doebereiner), but never wonders what makes them tick.
BUBBLE WAS DIRECTED BY STEVEN SODERBERGH; WRITTEN BY SODERBERGH AND COLEMAN HOUGH; AND PRODUCED BY TODD WAGNER, MARK CUBAN AND GREGORY JACOBS. OPENS FRI. AT THE NUART IN WEST LA, PREMIERES AT 9 & 11 P.M. FRI. ON HDNET MOVIES, AND IS RELEASED ON DVD TUES.