In September 2005, Stephen Soderbergh’s “Bubble” premiered simultaneously in theaters, and on DVD and cable. I didn’t pay much attention to the film at the time except to take notice that much of the action takes place in a doll factory. Soderbergh is well-known for glitzy entertainments like “Oceans 11” but he has also made some serious groundbreaking films like “Good Night and Good Luck” that dramatized the confrontation between Edward R. Murrow and Joe McCarthy, and which was understood as a critique of how the media failed to challenge Bush’s war in Iraq. Even when he has been less successful with films such as “Syriana”, you have to give him credit for tackling big issues. I imagine that something like “Oceans 11” constitutes his “day job” while most of his passion is directed toward offbeat works such as “Bubble”.
Rose, Martha and Kyle in the doll factory lunchroom
It is also worth mentioning that “Bubble” was produced by HDNET, the cable TV company run by Mark Cuban, who also owns the Dallas Mavericks. Before HDNET got into the production business, Cuban co-produced “Good Night and Good Luck.” Clearly he has an interest in how news is produced. Besides “Bubble,” HDNET was responsible for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “The War Within”, which was about the planning of a terrorist attack in New York by a Pakistani. “The War Within” generated a lot of controversy because it was deemed far too sympathetic to the main character.
I finally got around to watching “Bubble” last night, courtesy of a screener from Magnolia, a distribution company for edgy, independent films. Although it has problems, it is certainly worth renting. It is one of the few movies–and perhaps the only one–that I have ever seen about the working poor in the USA and specifically white workers. It is an unsparing look at the lives of factory workers whose wages are just above the minimum wage, can’t afford automobiles, shop at Walmart and eat McDonalds. As part of his commitment to authenticity, Soderbergh filmed on location in Parkersburg, West Virginia and at the Lee Middleton Original Dolls factory in Belpre, Ohio, just across the state line. This is a typical non-unionized small shop that workers are increasingly forced to seek out nowadays as big steel, auto and mining jobs disappear.
There are three non-professional actors in the lead roles. Martha is an overweight middle-aged woman who drives Kyle, a high school dropout, back and forth from work each day. He has a second job in a shovel factory, but still can’t scrape together the money to buy his own car. He lives in a mobile home with his mother, while Martha lives and cares for her elderly father in a modest single-family home with furniture that has Walmart written all over it. As in keeping with the on-location versimilitude of the film, the homes of the characters are their actual homes in real life.
Martha is played by Debbie Doebereiner, who manages a Kentucky Fried Chicken in real-life, while Kyle is played by Dustin James Ashley, who was training to be a computer technician when the film was made. As the film unfolds, most of the dialog between Kyle and Martha consists of hum-drum matters about what they will do on the weekend, the job, etc. This led critics to complain about how boring the film was. To the contrary, I found it completely riveting in the same manner of an Edward Hopper painting. Since the daily lives of the working poor is so hidden from view (except in something like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickle and Dimed”), a film that describes that reality has a bracing quality no matter its other flaws.
If the dialog lacks the kind of sparkle found in an Oscar Wilde play, it should be understood that they are the actual words of working people. The actors were asked to improvise their lines based on an outline supplied by Coleman Hough, the screenwriter who had also written “Full Frontal,” another Soderbergh film. Hough hails from the South and was eking out a career as a poet and short-story writer before moving to Hollywood where she ran into Soderbergh. Her sensibility has remained distinctly non-Hollywood.
Conflict enters the picture in the form of Rose, an attractive single mother who is a new hire at the doll factory, assigned to airbrush the dolls’ faces. She is played by Misty Wilkins, a hair stylist in real life.
Eventually, she and Kyle begin to spend more time together and finally decide to go out and have some beers together. On that night, Rose asks Martha to baby sit for her. When Rose returns later, her ex-boyfriend bursts into the apartment and accuses her of stealing money and marijuana. After a moment or two of them yelling at each other–with Martha sitting chagrined on the sofa–Rose manhandles her ex out of the apartment.
The next day cops find Rose dead on the living room floor. Somebody has strangled her and Kyle, the ex-boyfriend and Martha are all suspects. Critics were understandably peeved when this murder mystery did not involve the kind of bravura twists and turns found in Agatha Christie but clearly did not understand what Soderbergh was up to. This is much less of a murder mystery than it is a chronicle of working class life–with its frustrations, alienation, boredom and desperation. It is to his credit that he carries it off, despite some serious flaws that mostly have to do with its unsatisfactory ending. Without revealing too much about it, I would only say that lacks credibility. Perhaps the film would have fared better if it has dispensed with such a melodramatic event and stuck with the daily drama of survival.