In the film Bubble , we meet Martha, played by Debbie Doebereiner. She works in a little factory that makes baby dolls. Her repetitive, menial job is to glue on the scalps and hair. Martha herself has orange hair dyed so poorly that it looks glued on, too. Her eyebrows are so blond they are nonexistent; her obese face looks as airbrushed as one of the dolls. It’s as if Martha is a melted toy from this very assembly line, forgotten for a million years, left to work on the line until her clockwork runs down.
In her lonely life, Martha has one good thing: her best friend Kyle, Dustin James Ashley. He still lives with his mom; Martha gives him rides. He is shy; she fills in the gaps. They spend their dreary days punctuated with fast food and his cigarettes, talking about but never saving any money. But then pretty Rose, Misty Dawn Wilkins, comes to work at the factory. She catches Kyle’s eye. Martha notices the exchange, and her baleful gaze becomes as menacing as a basilisk.
Martha is the most distinct character in many months of movies. Now consider that Doebereiner is not an actress, and neither is anyone else in the movie. Director Stephen Soderbergh cast the parts with people he met on location in Ohio. The flat affect of non-actors is a match with the dull lives of the characters. At first, you think that makes them feel more "real". But I think there’s a different kind of fascination here.
The film feels risky because it always threatens to get away from Soderbergh. At any time, the non-actors might be revealed for what they are: terrible actors. But Soderbergh is too smart to let that happen. He cuts away from them; he shoots them in long-shot; he gives them stories to tell from their own lives so they will invest the dialog with feeling. He’s so careful not to let his actors have a bad moment, it feels like he’s ashamed of them.
As in his earlier film The Limey , Soderbergh is interested in ordinary people who commit a shocking act of violence. But I don’t believe that Martha, from the evidence provided, would do what she does. Unless, of course, she’s crazy, as seems to be the case. While sitting in church, she is bathed in blue light, having some kind of epiphany. But what travels to Martha in the blue light? Like the murders committed by Andrea Yates, what Martha does is just one of those things we are never, ever going to understand.
Stanley Kubrick used to tell people that he knew nothing of motivation; he only knew about behavior. Soderbergh has Kubrick’s icy touch; he even uses the wide angle lenses favored by Kubrick. When Soderbergh looks at the bubble that forms the characters’ lives, the effect is that of a cat watching three ordinary goldfish pointlessly circumambulating a fishbowl. It makes for a cruel and condescending little picture.
Bubble is playing at the Landmark theater in Castleton. It is also the first movie to be released simultaneously in theaters and on DVD and on HDNet cable. So if you want to stick it to the studios, buy the DVD and keep those rascals up all night. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.