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Filtered through a very flimsy membrane

Steven Soderbergh's 'Bubble' tackles the working class from an isolated distance.

January 27, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Steven Soderbergh's new movie is called "Bubble," which would suggest that somebody -- the characters, the audiences, the filmmakers -- is supposed to be hovering above cold, hard reality in a fragile membrane of some kind. Nothing in the lives depicted on the screen reflects the effervescence of the title, though, and the director stares at his protagonists with such austere, Bressonian intensity it starts to feel impolite after a while. Shot on high-definition video on location in Ohio and West Virginia, and directed by Soderbergh from a grimly matter-of-fact (and matter-of-factly grim) script by Coleman Hough ("Full Frontal"), the movie finds so little humor, warmth, spark or purpose in the lives of its protagonists, you wonder if it's intended as satire of the smugness of the art-house beholder -- if the bubble of the title, in other words, refers to the one around the audience. More likely is that the filmmakers mean to flip the fluorescent lights on the numbness of working-class life, though it's done from such a cool remove you sort of feel like a jerk for seeing their point.

"Bubble" is the first of six digital movies by Soderbergh for Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's 2929 Entertainment, which plans to release them on pay TV and DVD at the same time they open in theaters, and it's an odd first choice for the experiment. Stark and slow-moving, "Bubble," which makes "Full Frontal" look like "sex, lies, and videotape," is in little danger of becoming a runaway indie hit.

It is, however, strangely absorbing -- and its unadorned naturalism and metronomic editing style go a long way to create a feeling of floaty isolation and disconnect. Debbie Doebereiner, who in real life has managed a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Parkersburg, W.Va., for 24 years, plays Martha, an overweight doll factory worker in her 40s who cares for her elderly father and sews doll clothes in her spare time. Her "best friend" is co-worker Kyle (Dustin James Ashley, who in real life is studying to become a computer technician), who lives with his mother in a double-wide trailer. Kyle is functionally mute in the manner of semi-literate, semi-sober dudes everywhere, and his very existence seems permeated with a sort of permanent embarrassment. Whether he reciprocates Martha's friendship is not entirely clear -- he's affable enough , but then he relies on her for rides to his other job.

Their daily routine is disrupted by the hiring of Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins, a hairstylist from Belpre, Ohio), an attractive and opportunistic girl in her 20s to whom Kyle is immediately drawn. Rose has an acid tongue, a decadent nonchalance and an easy sexuality that Martha finds inexpressibly threatening. "She scares me a little," Martha tells Kyle, after accompanying Rose to a the modest suburban house Rose is hired to clean, and winding up drifting through it dumbstruck at what she perceives as its opulence, while Rose soaks in the master bathroom tub. Martha picks up her daily crullers at a bakery whose walls are decorated with crucifix cake pans; but the filmmakers choose not to comment-- which seems like a pretty clear sign that the whole thing is going to end in tears. Still, Christian-themed baked goods don't quite prepare one for the severity of the ending.

A humanizing moment of romantic awkwardness between Martha and Kyle would have packed twice the punch of the low-key "shocker" ending without compromising anything, but instead we get sly winks (such as Martha describing a middle-class house in a housing development as "gorgeous" and "fabulous") and bafflement (Martha, in church, suddenly spotlighted, presumably by the Lord himself).

Scenes like these nudge "Bubble's" perspective from cold to condescending, especially given the parallels between the characters' lives and the actors' real ones.

Shot by Soderbergh (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) as a series of compelling evidence snapshots, and set to a simple but powerful acoustic guitar theme by Robert Pollard, the movie is a quiet rebuff to what usually passes for naturalism in Hollywood movies.

But despite its refreshingly straightforward style and compelling performers, the movie feels encased in an invisible, filmy membrane of its own. Soderbergh keeps his characters on one side of the wall and his audience on the other. As to which is living in the real world, I guess that's open to discussion.



MPAA rating: R for some language

An HDNet Films/Magnolia Pictures presentation in association with 2929 Productions. Director/cinematographer/editor Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay Coleman Hough. Producer Gregory Jacobs. Sound Dennis Towns. Music Robert Pollard. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes.

Exclusive locally at the NuArt, (310) 281-8223, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., also available on subscription TV network HDNet Movies twice today at 6 and 8 p.m. PST (check system listings] and on DVD via and in retail stores on Tuesday.

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