(R) 2 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Steven Soderbergh's Bubble has drawn a lot of attention because of its release in theaters, on HDNet and as a DVD within the same week. This has some people very excited and others very upset, particularly those theater owners who fear that if this becomes a common practice, it will hurt business.

I won't address the issue here because I prefer to keep the focus on the movie instead of the marketing. The important thing to remember is this: Regardless of the format, Bubble is best avoided unless you are a hard-core Soderbergh buff or a friend or relative of one of the cast members.

Some critics have embraced the movie. A few have gone so far as to call it a masterpiece. They are mistaken. As a story, it is written in crayon. The really thick kind of crayon. As a statement about a part of the American landscape it is obvious and condescending. As a study of the human condition it is depressing and insubstantial.

Soderbergh, whose breakout film was sex, lies and videotape, likes to return to his indie roots occasionally when not making movies like Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve. For this outing, set in a small Ohio town, he cast local non-professionals with no previous acting experience.

Oh my, what a bad idea.

Martha (Debbie Doebereiner, a KFC manager) is a middle-age woman who lives with her elderly father and works at a doll factory. Her self-proclaimed best friend is Kyle (Dustin James Ashley, a computer student), a shy young fellow employee who lives with his mom and smokes pot in his bedroom after work.

Soderbergh first establishes their reality: dreary work punctuated by vacuous conversation, dreary home lives punctuated by vacuous conversation. The filmmaker frequently cuts to shots of doll parts - plastic arms and legs, glass eyes - plastic like the lives of the characters, dead eyes just like the characters. Get it? Get it?

Then young single mother Rose (hair stylist Misty Dawn Wilkins) gets a job at the factory. She smiles at Kyle. She asks favors of Martha. She disturbs the order of things. Then something awful happens, something even worse than their daily lives.

About the acting. Did you ever notice how people talk on reality TV shows? They try to sound natural, but always sound like someone who knows a camera is aimed at them. There are extra pauses. Conversations are stilted and abrupt. Movements are either sheepish or too broad. That's how these folks talk, except that they speak far less than the chatterboxes on reality shows.

Robert Pollard provides acoustic guitar doodling to keep the atmosphere depressing. Aside from all the doll shots, the camera work is matter-of-fact, save for a scene in church when Soderbergh starts with a shot of the congregation sitting in the pews, staring straight ahead looking dead (like dolls, y'see, like dolls), then cuts to a close-up of Martha, highlighting her face with a spotlight while the background fades away.

The shot is intriguing because it implies significance. Actually, the whole movie was interesting for the same reason. I watched the dreadful acting and listened to the flat conversations with fascination, wondering what it all was leading to.

But you know what? It all leads to nothing. Perhaps that's Mr. Soderbergh's point. Who knows, or cares? Bubble uses gimmicks to get our attention and build our interest, then fails to do anything but confirm its own miserable stance. Thanks, Mr. Soderbergh, but I can feel shitty on my own.


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