In order to properly imagine my state of mind while writing this review, you need to pretend that you can hear me sighing in the most frustrated manner imaginable. It has been over a year since I’ve watched a film I disliked this immensely. It was July of 2012 to be specific and I had watched the decidedly unfunny and misogynistic How to Marry a Millionaire with Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. Generally speaking, my average score for films I dislike is in the “C-” to “C+” range. I’ve given less than five total films (this brings it up to an even five) a score lower than a “C-” in this entire blog’s existence. That’s because even films I loathe like Forrest Gump or Cloud Atlas have a handful of redeeming qualities. No matter how terrible I think they are, there was at least some level of competency that went into their construction. There is nothing competent or enjoyable or redeeming about Steven Soderbergh’s (Magic Mike) 2006 indie Bubble which is a strong contender to be one of the worst, most unnecessary films I’ve ever, not just for this blog but in my entire life.
Set simultaneously in Parkersburg, WV (representing my home state here in the worst possible way imaginable) and Belpre, OH, Bubble is a turgid and excruciatingly paced look at the nihilistic emptiness of life in dead-end jobs in dying towns wrapped within a murder (non)mystery. If that sounds interesting, it could have been. There’s probably some masterful existentialist drama hidden in the thematic ambitions of Bubble. Sadly, the movie is not interesting. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) and Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) work at a doll factory. Martha is an overweight middle-aged woman caring for her father. Kyle is a driftless twenty-something with no plans or ambition. Martha may or may not be in love with Kyle. A manipulative, pushy single mother Rose (Misty Wilkins) gets a job at the doll factory. She and Kyle start dating. She’s murdered. People begin to suspect Martha.
I intentionally described the plot in as bare bones terms as possible because that’s literally the film. At a mercifully brief 77 minutes, plot is almost non-existent, and Netflix’s plot description makes it sound like some quirky murder mystery. It isn’t. It’s mostly a series of abysmally performed conversations with plot points seemingly artificially tacked on because Soderbergh and crew didn’t know what to do with these dull characters and non-professional actors. I know that Soderbergh is using the blandness and crippling boredom of the film as a commentary on what life is like in these sorts of towns, particularly if you’re stuck in the dead-end careers of people like Kyle and Martha. But, just because he intended to make the film as agonizingly dull as humanly possible doesn’t mean I have to applaud him for his success.
The comment about non-professional actors wasn’t unintentional. Kyle and Martha share the concept of “lead” in this film, and this was the only film either actor has ever made. Debbie Doebereiner was a manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Parkersburg when Soderbergh “discovered” her and decided to cast her in his film. Don’t get me wrong. She certainly looks the part of someone who would be stuck in this lifestyle. That doesn’t make her a good actress and she has the emotional range of a Q-Tip, which actually was probably intentional on Soderbergh’s part. Dustin James Ashley seems like deep down he could probably be a decent actor, but Kyle is as flat a character as a sheet of paper, and with the film’s completely improvised script, he’s not given much substance to work with.
I love Steven Soderbergh, and though I’m not from Parkersburg, WV, I come from a similar West Virginia town that suffers from all of the malaise that permeates Parkersburg and Belpre. I am a perfect candidate to enjoy this type of film. That I found it to be almost completely unbearable should speak volumes to the insufferably low quality of this production. Soderbergh is an Academy Award winning director (for Traffic), but Bubble feels like something a first year drop-out of film school would make if they somehow stumbled upon the miniscule budget this atrocity was shot on. At his best, Soderbergh is a genius and a poster child for inspired modern independent film-making. But if Bubble is the type of film he makes when he is totally untethered from the strictures of the modern studio system, perhaps its for the best if studio execs are there to keep him from indulging in this sort of pretentious, unwatchable nonsense.
Final Score: D+