There's been a lot of talk about the innovative marketing plan behind Steven Soderbergh's new film Bubble, which has the movie debuting simultaneously in select theaters, on HDNet, and at DVD retailers. There's also been some talk about Soderbergh's return to offbeat low-budget filmmaking after another of his periodic splashes in the mainstream. But there hasn't been as much talk about the movie itself, which is understandable, since Bubble is a slight project even by Soderbergh's loose standards. It's an exercise in regional theater improvisation, with non-professional actors mumbling inarticulately when asked to be natural, and speaking plainly and flatly when asked to advance the plot. As an acting showcase, Bubble is roughly on par with a homegrown B-movie, like The Giant Spider Invasion without the giant spiders.
Dustin Ashley stars as a handsome slacker who works at a West Virginia doll factory with moony-eyed middle-aged do-gooder Debbie Doebereiner and sexy single mother Misty Wilkins. The first half of the movie explores their mundane love triangle; in the second half, someone turns up dead, and Bubble resolves into a bone-dry procedural mystery. Shooting with more sophisticated digital cameras than he used on the much-derided (but really not that bad) Full Frontal, Soderbergh creates a detached mood, where every vending machine and fast-food drink cup becomes a quaint curio of an alien lifestyle. It's almost condescending, as though Soderbergh were challenging himself to make Middle America interesting.
And yet the movie is interesting, almost in spite of itself. It's blessedly short, with almost no wasted moments, and though the cast struggles to sell a story that could easily be summarized as "the person in the yellow shirt kills the person in the red shirt," there are a handful of engaging scenes at that crazy doll factory, derived from the weird process of molding plastic, and from the kind of forced camaraderie that should be familiar to anyone who's ever eaten lunch in a break room. Bubble is best considered as a failed-but-occasionally-nifty experiment, not the trial balloon for a whole new way of selling movies. In a less-heady context, it's easier to appreciate the way the job-hopping Wilkins describes her whole life in one anecdote about working in a nursing home, the creepy rapport between the cradle-robbing Doebereiner and the indifferent Ashley, or those countless, almost meaningful shots of freaky, dead-eyed doll heads.