Having accomplished everything in the world of film—single-handedly launching the contemporary indie scene with sex lies and videotape (1989), winning the Best Director Oscar for Traffic (2000), and most improbably of all, once wringing an intelligent performance out of Jennifer Lopez—Steven Soderbergh now moves on to the world of nonfilm. How else to describe Bubble (Magnolia Pictures), a movie trying so hard not to look or feel like a polished feature? In Soderbergh’s Danny Ocean pictures, the beautiful people banter and crack wise, until we’re all fairly drowning in the collective élan. In Bubble, nonactors swish the ice in their Big Gulp, stare blankly off into the middle distance, and mumble their lines without conviction. So brutal a negation of the popcorn aesthetic is liable to be mistaken for artistic courage. A grindingly slow pace, a quarter-baked plot, a semidocumentary focus on the lives of the working poor: It’s enough to make you whimper “Matt Damon” in defeat.
Bubble tells the story of a love triangle that develops between three co-workers at a doll factory along the border between Ohio and West Virginia. Martha is a pleasant middle-aged dead-ender whose sole sources of romance are the coffee breaks she shares with Kyle, a young antisocial stoner. Into their workaday company comes Rose, a young single mother who knows that, unlike Martha, she is pretty enough to one day move on. Martha hovers mutely over their burgeoning romance, keeping on eye on Rose by offering her rides to and from her second job as a house cleaner. “I’m not too sure about her,” Martha tells Kyle, after she discovers Rose luxuriating in a bathtub of a house she’s supposed to be cleaning. This utterance, by the standards of Bubble, is an Italian aria.
How to convey the effect of so much dead air? Like many directors before him, Soderbergh decided to shoot on location, and he is not the first to search for authenticity and immediacy in a cast full of amateurs. But there’s amateur, and then there’s amateur. In Bubble, dialogue dribbles forth; it overlaps, cuts short, wanders off. Definite words often barely form on the palates of the performers; those words often barely link up to form full sentences. For being so free of affectation, the nonacting is creepily hypnotic. (Martha is played by Debbie Doebereiner, a manager at a West Virginia Kentucky Fried Chicken. Rose is played by Misty Dawn Wilkins, a stylist at a hair salon. Kyle is played by Dustin James Ashley, an aspiring computer technician.) The film does have one genuine star, the factory itself, and the early scenes, which follow each step in the creation and assembly of a finished baby doll, are mesmerizing. But as the plot unfolded along the lines of a conventional melodrama, I couldn’t help thinking: In addition to health care and a living wage, don’t the working poor deserve makeup, wardrobe, decent lighting, and some heart-skipping drama? All the snazz Soderbergh reserves for Brad, George, and Julia? Don’t they deserve, in other words, more than a Hollywood wunderkind at pains to prove he can get away with anything?