When a director is as talented and successful as Steven Soderbergh, I suppose he’s entitled to occasionally be a little self-indulgent, but there are limits to what an audience should have to tolerate. Fans of experimental filmmaking are willing to put up with a lot, but we expect something in return. It doesn’t have to be that much; sometimes a single compelling performance is enough, or an unpredictable plot, or an interesting theme, or some unusually beautiful images. There are a variety of things we may look for, but what they all boil down to is a desire to see something different and more interesting than what commercial movies typically have to offer. What Bubble gives us is different, all right, but it’s less, not more, than what we could get elsewhere.
The film is set in the factories, cheap restaurants, and shabby homes along the border of southern Ohio and West Virginia, where it was filmed, using practical locations and available light, avoiding as much as possible any Hollywood artifice. The cast is made up entirely of ordinary local folks — seemingly the most ordinary-looking ordinary folks Soderbergh could find; even the supposedly attractive young people are pretty damn scruffy-looking — who improvised their own dialogue, working from an outline written by Coleman Hough. Hough collaborated with Soderbergh on his last experimental film, Full Frontal, an examination of the divide between film and reality that was almost universally reviled by critics. (I actually kinda liked Full Frontal; it was unformed and sometimes frustrating, but it had good performances from a remarkable cast and played intriguing games with the borders between art and life.) In making Full Frontal, Soderbergh experimented with imposing arbitrary, Dogme 95-style restrictions on himself, and he’s clearly still intrigued by the Dogme collective’s pretentious, audience-alienating approach to filmmaking. In both its method and storyline, Bubble seems influenced by Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, the vile, idiotic musical about the evil and injustice supposedly inherent in American society. Thankfully, though, Bubble has no production numbers.
The plot centers on a love triangle involving Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a lonely, timid, middle-aged woman, who has a crush on her twentyish doll-factory coworker Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), who has a crush on Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), the new girl at the factory. While Kyle is more than happy to have Rose around, she’s a real pain for Martha. Not only is she a distraction to Kyle, who is Martha’s only real friend, she’s also presumptuous and a bit rude; as soon as they’ve met, she begins asking Martha for a series of favors. Rose has a sense of entitlement; she feels that she deserves better than this shit-town and the shit-jobs it has to offer. Kyle, who’s not stupid but isn’t terribly perceptive either, sees only a cute new girl who seems interested in him. They go out on a date that ends up back at Kyle’s place, but all he gets for his trouble is a wad of cash stolen from his underwear drawer. When Rose suddenly turns up dead, there are three suspects: Martha, Kyle, and Rose’s jealous, bad-tempered ex-boyfriend Jake (Kyle Smith).
Soderbergh is smart enough to know that the key to creating the appearance of reality is usually well-executed artifice — that good professional actors can play ordinary folks more convincingly than all but the most gifted non-actors — so why did he cast the film the way he did? The leads don’t have the rhythms of trained actors, but they aren’t those of normal speech either — they seem sedated yet self-conscious. Some of this could be intentional — Soderbergh might be trying to suggest the numbing quality of their dead-end lives — but I’m not convinced it’s accurate. The people I’ve known in situations like this tend to be much more self-dramatizing than numbed; they try to raise the non-events of their mundane lives to the level of epic drama.
Soderbergh does get a solid performance out of Decker Moody, who plays the detective investigating Rose’s murder and is in fact a Parkersburg, West Virginia, police detective, a 24-year veteran. Moody’s naturalness makes you realize how much you’ve missed real acting in the earlier sequences, but it can also bring out the best in other cast members. Smith is hammy and excessive in his first scene but, when the detective interviews him, Moody sets the tone and Smith is more low-key and genuine. Doebereiner, the former general manager of the Parkersburg Kentucky Fried Chicken, is clumsy with dialogue — her speech is uninflected and punctuated with awkward gaps — but she has an expressive face; her inner state is always visible right on the surface. Her isolation is poignant; the details of her life have a pathetic shabbiness — her bland routine at home, where she cares for her invalid father; the beauty school where she goes for a discount haircut.
Though most of it is delivered in a graceless monotone, the improvised dialogue is an accurate recreation of the kinds of conversations these people might have. Soderbergh condescends to the characters a bit — he seems amused by the tackiness of their low aspirations — but he isn’t distanced from them. He catches the quotidian details of their marginal lives: the shoddy, pre-fab homes and their shoddy, pre-fab furnishings; the bleak, overlit coffee shops and dank, greasy “casual dining” restaurants. There’s a nicely observed moment when, on his lunch break from his second job at the shovel factory, Kyle is so bored that he stands and stares into the sandwich vending machine, holding down the button so that its barrel keeps rotating, rotating. Bubble offers a view into a particular world that could have some interest for those unfamiliar with it but, if you’ve lived in a place like this and known people like this, its only effect is to remind you why you couldn’t wait to get away.
In keeping with its Dogme-style approach, Bubble was shot on high-definition digital video, which captures images of highly variable quality. The exterior scenes are unusually crisp and rich in color, but the interiors, shot using available light — including harsh blue-white fluorescents and yellowy incandescents — are either underlit or garish. And the film’s underwhelming emotional effect isn’t helped by its thin, repetitive guitar score by Robert Pollard, the former lead singer of Guided by Voices. But, its other demerits aside, what’s most frustrating about Bubble is the feeling, finally, that we’ve been cheated. We play along, accepting the nonprofessional acting and static, badly lit cinematography, gradually getting into the story, wondering what the final revelation will be. But the killer is who we suspected it was all along and, after our suspicions are confirmed, the movie abruptly ends. It’s as though Soderbergh just didn’t feel like shooting the third act, and it feels like a real fuck-you to the audience — we play along and get nothing in return.
Bubble is the first film of a projected six that Soderbergh has planned, in partnership with media tycoons Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, to release simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, and on television, but it seems a bizarre choice to inaugurate the new distribution model — is Soderbergh trying to ensure that it fails? I can’t divine any other purpose to the film; it seems to aspire to nothing: it offers little suspense, no insight into the characters or human nature more generally, no attempt to reveal anything new about their way of life or find a deeper meaning in their actions. It’s a painfully literal film: things happen for a while, then they stop happening, then the credits roll. Soderbergh described Full Frontal as “an exploration of the contract that exists between the filmmaker and the audience and what happens when you violate that contract.” Bubble takes the contract, rips it up, and burns the shreds.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Bubble / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()