Steven Soderbergh/USA/2005; R4
Madman, $29.95 | Reviewed by Simon Wood

STEVEN SODERBERGH is the exception that proves auteur theory correct. No matter how diverse his projects in scope, they have to be superlative; the biggest cast, the most relevant political argument, the biggest stars. Now we have Bubble, the indiest film he could have possibly made.

Shot with non-actors improvising dialogue from a bare bones plot outline, Bubble tells the story of workers at a West Virginian doll factory. At first the focus is the mundane minutiae of blue collar grind. Co-workers Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) and Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) have a friendly, if awkward, relationship. When their boss hires single mum Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), the nature of their relationship changes. As most artificially down home films do, it all ends in a culmination of unfortunate, and slightly artificial, circumstances.

It’s interesting to speculate on Soderbergh’s motivation in making Bubble. He’s an esoteric filmmaker who seems equally comfortable with blockbuster fare (The Oceans’ trilogy), ensemble pieces (Traffic, Out of Sight), and tight, character driven projects (Solaris, The Limey). But Bubble sits comfortably outside anything he has yet done.

And herein lies the problem. Bubble is an experimental film weighed down by its own circumstances. Unlike Lars von Trier, who uses the Dogme tenets to rail against the perceived emptiness of filmmaking, Soderbergh has stripped down the entire project just to see what happens. The non-actors do as well as can be expected in the circumstances, mumbling away searching for the right mood, but the whole experiment feels forced.

It’s not that there isn’t merit in Soderbergh’s approach. Few directors would have the gumption to so radically strip down their production. But, as a tribute to filmmaking, this isn’t quite avant garde enough to nail its target. Bubble is a one-watch film. It hits the right notes in fits and spurts but there’s a constant, nagging, underpinning feeling this is a luxury film.

Low-budget filmmakers employ stripped-down aesthetics, non-actors and on location filming – not to mention a digital format – because it is the only way they can get their films made. If these factors result in a certain charm, it’s almost always tangential to the film’s own merits. In contrast, Soderbergh’s Brechtian exercise wants to be judged almost entirely on its own limitations. Bubble is fan fiction in reverse, a big time director embracing impoverishment for the sake of it.

This is not to say there are not positives in the film. The surreal symbolism of the doll factory teeters perfectly between tragic and ridiculous, and at their most unguarded, there’s a real chemistry between the three leads that manifests itself in a sense of doomed predetermination. Appalachia seems, more or less, like hell.

What Bubble lacks, however, is the verve of David Gordon Green’s rust belt tragedies, or the calculated rhythm of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. It’s admirable that Soderbergh, appreciates the artistic potential of films made in the verite style, but there are ways to merge this with cinematic flair without resorting to superficial limitations. It’s unfortunate, because his oeuvre betrays an appreciation for filmmaking in all varieties. But his successful films share one common trait that is entirely missing from Bubble: ambition.

THIS Directors Suite release contains plenty of extras. The commentary, by Soderbergh and fellow director Mark Romanek is informative and helps to shed light on some of the film’s stranger moments. Likewise the alternative ending, which removes the plot’s subtlety and changes the whole dynamic of the film.

The most relevant inclusion is the audition interviews with the three leads. It’s striking how close they are to their on-screen characters, and adds gives the viewer a sense of perspective about the whole project.