Steven Soderbergh – who shot to fame 17 years ago, when sex, lies and videotape took the 1989 Sundance Film Festival by storm – won a Best Director Oscar for Traffic and immediately used his newfound Hollywood clout to cast George Clooney in a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. That didn't turn out so great, and some of us – well, okay, probably just me – spent one or two sleepless nights worrying about Steven Soderbergh's career. Though he'd surely never speak to it, perhaps Soderbergh was worried, too, because after the lackluster reception to 2004's Ocean's 12, he went out looking for a kick in the ass. So let's get the business part out of the way: Bubble is the first of six films that the director plans to make, on high def video at a budget of about $250,000 each, for Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's 2929 Entertainment. 2929, in turn, plans to release all six films on DVD, in theaters, and on HD Net cable – simultaneously. Going in, it's hard to brush off the worry that the deal – and, particularly, its emphasis on technology and speed – might dictate, or at least influence, the way Soderbergh approaches his form and content. What's immediately striking about Bubble, however, is its apparent lack of desire to conform to ... anything. Bubble is not a commercial film, and as such, it in some ways seems like the ideal test case for 2929's simultaneous distribution gambit. If there's any film in today's marketplace that needs to blow its wad all at once to get noticed, it's this.
Like Steven Soderbergh's best work, Bubble feels like a genre film that can't find its genre. The picture recycles certain tropes of film noir – we've got some semblance of a love triangle; we've definitely got a femme fatale; we've got a not-too bright male lead struck even dumber by booze and a certain whip-smart girl's pretty pout and saucer eyes – but Soderbergh cranks these elements through the mill of Middle American mundanity until the film starts to resemble a script-based remake of Gummo. Soderbergh is most in his element when it looks like he's magically grafting structure onto a situtation that's otherwise sort of a mess, and Bubble is most effective when the director has the confidence in his own editorial prowess to let everything bleed.
The story follows the unadventures of Martha (Debbie Doebereiner – like the rest of the cast, a first-timer found by Soderbergh in his pre-chosen location), an obese woman who works at a doll factory on the border of Ohio and West Virginia. Martha lives in a trailer with her aging father, and her life pretty much revolves around work, fast food, and TV. Otherwise friendless, she goes out of her way to extend courtesy to Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a 20-ish co-worker who politely exploit's Martha's willingness to drive him around. Struck oblivious by loneliness and longing, Martha clearly looks at Kyle's friendliness (or, really, lack of meanness) as a sign of their mutual love. The sad monotony of Martha and Kyle's lives is broken when a new employee is hired to paint faces on doll heads. Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) is a beautiful, manipulative single mother. Watching how Kyle gentle pulls Martha's strings, Rose walks right in and poutily upends the power balance. Soon Martha finds herself babysitting Rose' spoiled child whilst the mother goes on a date with the older woman's wannabe boyfriend. Soon after that, a violent tragedy takes occurs, and though she's dancing as fast as she can to make it otherwise, through the course of the ensuing police investigation, Martha and Kyle are irreversibly pushed further apart.
The script is by Full Frontal scribe Coleman Haugh, but Bubble is a far more successful effort than that so-called "experimental" celebrity picnic. It's slow going at first; Soderbergh's never been the most strident filmmaker when it comes to tone, and the first few collages of Middle American poverty porn are aggravating in their refusal to pass clear judgement on the characters that walk through them. Let's remember, for a second, that we're watching a film by a guy who's spent the last five years hanging out with Julia Roberts and George Clooney; in that light, Bubble appears at first glance to be either a violent attack on the white working poor, or not nearly aggressive enough in its critique of the cultural degradation of that social class. Either way, there's little room for an in.
But there are a pair of moments about twenty minutes in that did it for me. I was first pulled in by a split-second lapse into dream logic that in retrospect smells like oblique foreshadowing; in the very next scene, the Rose the up-to-no-good ingenue is introduced, and from that point on, I couldn't look away. Bubble is certainly flawed (of the non-professionals here, only Doebereiner and Wilkins could have careers if they wanted them), but it's up to something pretty interesting: if nothing else, for the first time in a long time, Soderbergh seems willing to risk mass-cultural insignificance.