Spoilers abound, though like other pictures of its kind, Bubble isn’t really about the plot itself.
Though Steven Soderbergh is primarily a glitzy Hollywood director these days—Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s 11 & 12, etc—it’s worth remembering that he poked his head out of the filmic molehill on a much smaller (and original) scale with The Limey and sex, lies, and videotape. So Bubble, his return to naturalistic, controlled cinematic techniques, isn’t completely out of the blue. Set in a tiny town in Ohio, Bubble uses non-professional actors to convey a genuine story of self-deprecation and envy—Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) sees her mundane world turned upside-down when Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) begins working at the doll shop around which Martha’s routine revolves. Within a week, Rose is grubbing for favors and dating Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), the poker-faced youth whom Martha fawns over. Despite sensing that Rose is a selfish, troubled woman—a suspicion later proven correct—the browbeaten Martha is incapable of standing up to her, and she wearily agrees to all of Rose’s requests, including babysitting her daughter Jessie. When Rose winds up dead later that night, though, the town’s peaceful, dulled oblivion is disturbed, and it’s up to Detective Don (Decker Moody) to decipher who caused the upheaval.
Bubble often feels like a bootleg version of Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, with the same conflicted female central character who eventually pays for her sins. The constant extreme close-ups of the protagonist’s face; the quiet sense-of-shock in their faces when the magnitude of their actions becomes clear; the soft-spoken demeanor—the similarities are plentiful. In Vera Drake, Leigh imbues Vera (the wonderful Imelda Staunton) with a diverse character who truly believes she’s doing the right thing in her illegal actions. Her warm familial relations and kind eyes enhance her image as a genuinely good person, which makes her eventual fate all the more heartbreaking. Martha, though, has no such profundity, and it’s here where Bubble’s brisk 72-minute run-time holds it back. She’s clearly a morbidly depressed woman—she eats only fast foods, works a dead-end job in a dead-end town (when Rose mentions that she can’t wait to get out of there, Martha’s response is cold but polite: rather than feeling insulted by Rose’s remark, she feels stung by its truth), spends her spare time caring for her senile father & sewing, and has a crush on a quiet teenage boy. She’s unmarried, overweight, and living an existence to nowhere. Essentially, she’s your prototypical sad sack. While that’s inherently disheartening, it’s no longer a particularly unique scenario to find in films, and Bubble’s narrative arc frequently feels recycled—as it trudges towards its obvious conclusion, it never achieves an aura of mystery or surprise. Bubble’s climax is awkwardly paced, with the revelation of what really happened to Rose leading to a hurried emotional finale that doesn’t have the backbone to sustain it; we don’t care enoug about Martha to pity her plight. It must be said, though, that there are some superb scenes sprinkled in—Kyle’s final conversation with Martha is beautifully directed, revealing that his relationship with her was based on little more than pity, and he completely believes that she’s finally snapped; in fact, it’s almost as if he expected it. And that conversation may be what truly opens Martha’s eyes to the extent of what she’s done.
The title refers to the isolated comfort that the town’s residents are resigned to, how ill-equipped they are to handle change; the proper director could have worked wonders with Bubble. Considering that Soderbergh is not Robert Bresson or Vittorio de Sica, his work with the unknowns is admirable—all turn in respectable performances, though it’s worth noting that most felt like people playing themselves. Soderbergh’s patient camera—quite different from the nonstop pacing of the Ocean films—has a bit more energy early on with some lovely long pans, but tapers into a pretty standard pattern as the picture progresses (it’s also worth noting that this is the first of six planned Soderbergh movies to be shot in HD, though I saw it screened on film). Bubble isn’t offensive or difficult to watch, but it’s also pretty meaningless—none of its themes are fresh, and the naturalistic pacing and dialogue is only sporadically engaging, and never transcendent. While he could certainly have done much worse, I vote for Soderbergh to keep churning out the frenetic flicks. He’s not a shallow filmmaker, but Bubble exposes his limitations—he should be remembered for what he can do, not what he isn’t cut out for.