Monday, September 12, 2005

TIFF 2005: "BUBBLE" (Review)

(Special Presentations, USA, 90 minutes)
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Coleman Howe
Cast: Dustin James Ashley, Omar Cowan, Debbie Doebereinner, Misty Wilkins, Laurie Lee

Well, with this one, it's obvious that his seemingly infallible Midas touch for critical and box office successes--many toplining the cream of Hollywood A-list talent like George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lopez, and Michael Douglas to name but a few--certainly hasn't caused Steven Soderbergh to forget his indie roots. Ever since his debut with 1988's Sundance sensation "Sex, Lies, And Videotape", writer/director/cinematographer (and occassional actor) Soderbergh has frequently surprised--and confounded--his fan base with 180 degree detours into highly personal and decidedly non-commercial experimental terrain with "Schizopolis", "Full Frontal", and his chapter in last year's little-seen erotic omnibus "Eros".

Having scored another box office home run with last year's "Ocean's 12", Soderbergh shatters any cynical film-snob dismissal that he's gone "mainstream" with the bleak, opaque "Bubble". But why, oh why, does this supremely talented filmmaker repeatedly feel the urge to atone for the alleged "sin" of achieving success, esp. while staying true to his artistic sensibility?

Not that "Bubble" feels like penance, mind you--it's well acted and unfolds with small but devastating revelations and at a scant 90 minute running time it wraps up just before its hermetically-sealed angst becomes too precious for its own good.

Employed at a doll factory in an economically depressed Ohio town, lonely, middle-aged Martha (Doebereiner) finds an unlikely friend in young slacker Kyle (Ashley), an aimless young man of few words who nonetheless makes for good company during lunch and commutes to work. At home, Martha cares for her aged, invalid father, while Kyle lives with his single mother.

When the attractive--and comparatively aggressive--twentysomething Rose (Wilkins) joins the staff and strikes up a mutual attraction with Kyle, Martha feels betrayed, especially after she agrees to babysit for Rose while the two arrange a date. When the duo returns from an abbreviated bar hop and quickie toke in Kyle's bedroom--Martha uncomfortably witnesses a late-night argument between Rose and her Jake, her jealous ex.

The following morning, Rose is found dead in her living room floor--strangled. Jake is dismissed as a suspect--all physical evidence points to Martha. But what is her motivation--if any? The investigating detective--and the audience--are left to wait out Martha's desperate backpeddling and vehement denial with the most startling realization is that there may be no reason for the crime at all...

Comparisons to "Fargo" may be obvious and somewhat appropriate if for no other reason to evoke some frame of reference for this truly strange bird---but Soderbergh chooses not to revel in regional lampoon by playing up the local colour and cutesy dialects. The cast are all non-professionals from the Ohio town where the film was shot, after screenwriter Coleman Hough spent some time there based upon a germ of an idea she concocted with the director (inspired by the true story of a woman who slit open an expectant mother's stomach to kidnap the fetus).

Shot on digital video by Soderbergh (one of six films he'll produce with Mark Cuban's HDNet Films, which plans to release "Bubble" to theatres, satellite TV, and DVD the same day), the film's anonymous faces and impersonal enviroments are rendered appropriately alien as afforded by the format's often shockingly clean "improvement" on celluloid's grainy, organic idealization of the "real". HD video could well be the Hallucinogenic-Hypnovision of the 21st century, with so much hoopla devoted to heralding the format that the content often seems irrevelent. Besides, anyone who really thinks celluloid has no "immediacy" hasn't seen the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman or the neo-realist dramas of DeSica. The decision to employ amateur actors for "authenticity" (whatever that means, esp. in the realm of fictional storytelling) is a curious move, since if anyone can draw richly nuanced out of baggage-heavy stars, it's Soderbergh.

In the end, "Bubble" is ultimately more of an exercise, really, than a satisfying whole, but its perfectly modulated shifts from sterile tableaus of Big Box-era angst to the more familiar machinations of a small town whodunit are definitely engrossing in a "you are there" kinda way.

Audiences will definitely be polarized, but you gotta hand it to Soderbergh--his "one for them/one for me" philosophy is certainly keeping moviemaking interesting for himself and moviegoing more pleasurable for us all.

Robert J. Lewis