Bubble (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Bubble is a history-making movie: the first film released simultaneously in movie theaters, on pay-per-view TV, and on DVD. As the initial move toward the collapse of the multiplex-to-video window, it's a baby step. The film is an excellent choice for this. It's a low-budget, independent effort with little mainstream appeal. But Steven Soderbergh's name on it guarantees it won't be overlooked. For those not living near one of the thirty-odd venues offering Bubble on their marquee, there is no need to wait four months for home video availability. In fact, it's possible to argue that the DVD is the preferred way to see the film. It's not the kind of movie that will suffer from a reduction in screen size, and there are several valuable features on the disc (an intriguing deleted scene, interviews, and two commentary tracks) that are not found in theaters.

It has been argued that movies about real people can lead the viewer on the path to boredom. After all, we go to (non-documentary) movies to escape from the real world, not to be immersed in it. Instead of being Exhibit A for the defense, Bubble contradicts the claim. There's nothing extraordinary about the film, its story, or its characters, yet it possesses the power to engross and mesmerize. Individual appreciation of Bubble depends on one's tolerance for slow-paced, character-based dramas where not a lot happens. In the hands of an accomplished filmmaker like Soderbergh, character definition is strong enough to keep an attuned audience member involved, and the movie is short enough (only 73 minutes) that it never threatens to overstay its welcome.

After the failure of Full Frontal, I was concerned about another Soderbergh "experiment." This time, it works. The screenplay, developed by Soderbergh and Coleman Hough, offered a narrative into which the experiences of the primary cast members - none of whom are professional actors - could be interwoven. The simple, bare-bones filmmaking style, coupled with the unforced performances, gives Bubble a documentary feeling. There's an honesty in what Soderbergh's camera has captured that, while not real in the strictest sense of the term, is nevertheless true-to-life.

Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) is a middle-aged worker in a doll factory. Her existence is one of routine, and its sameness offers her comfort. There are two men in her life, but no romance. Her infirm father depends on her care; without her, he would be in a nursing home. A younger co-worker, Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), relies on Martha for rides to and from work. They share lunches, although their times together are spent more in companionable silence than meaningful dialogue. Martha's interest in Kyle is maternal.

Enter Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a new worker at the factory. A single mother trying to make it on her own, she is attractive and outspoken. Kyle is interested in her, but he's too shy to say or do anything. Martha notices his interest, and so does Rose. She asks him out, then approaches Martha to baby-sit. The consideration of a relationship between the two does not sit well with the older woman. Her feelings are not those of jealousy in the conventional sense, but she is proprietary about Kyle, and views Rose as poaching. Meanwhile, Kyle is too passive to advance a relationship with Rose. Even when she maneuvers them to where they're alone in his bedroom, all he does is talk and offer her a drink. Then she does something that makes us question her motives.

The final third of the film is devoted to the investigation of a crime. Bubble's police inspector (Decker Moody) is not like the grizzled, hard-bitten detectives of movies and TV shows. He's smart and methodical, but not flashy. He doesn't use brutal scare tactics; he simply lays the facts on the table. The case is open-and-shut, although there may be more going on than meets the eye. (This is where the DVD's deleted scene comes in handy - it answers questions left ambiguous in the theatrical version and changes the tone of the ending. Personally, I think the DVD provides too much information, and I understand why Soderbergh chose to remove the scene.)

All the performances are dead-on and low-key. It's hard to imagine these actors playing anyone else - there's too much of them in their characters. Soderbergh knows how to get the best out of them. Their interactions are superficial, and remind us of how many perfunctory encounters we have in an ordinary day. All three individuals in Bubble are trapped. Martha, although lonely, has made her peace with her circumstances. Kyle lacks the initiative to do anything. And Rose is desperate to get out, but lacks the means.

One of the small pleasures of watching Bubble is getting a primer about how dolls are made. We see every step of the process, from the molding of the plastic to the painting of the features. It's a little creepy, seeing all those plastic heads and limbs being fitted together. The factory is forbidding - one has a sense this would make a good place in which to set a horror movie. Here, it provides a reason for the characters to remain rooted in this small Ohio River Valley town.

This is the first title of a six picture deal for Soderbergh. The other five will follow a similar template: non-professional actors inhabiting characters that are a fusion of the writer's imaginings and the performer's life experiences. It remains to be seen whether the director can recapture what he has secured in Bubble. In movies this deliberately paced, the line between fascination and boredom is a fine one, easily crossed. Fortunately, Bubble stays on the right side of that line, which makes it a worthwhile investment of time and money - regardless of whether you see it in a theater or at home. And the beauty of the experiment is that it's immediately available in both places.

Bubble (United States, 2005)

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin James Ashley, Misty Dawn Wilkins, Decker Moody
Screenplay: Coleman Hough
Cinematography: Peter Andrews
Music: Robert Pollard
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:13
U.S. Release Date: 2006-01-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1