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9 to 5

Soderbergh casts working stiffs in experimental Bubble

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Bubble, director Steven Soderbergh's experiment in high-def, low-frills filmmaking, operates from the premise that people may be unknowable, their plain Jane appearances and somnambulist dispositions perhaps cloaking secret impulses.

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It's hard to imagine anything like passion or rage simmering beneath Bubble. Its characters are residents of a small Ohio town, where houses grow like mushrooms in the shade of water towers, and monotony is the order of the day. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), for instance, is a doughy resident of the American working class, content to do her job, care for her aging father at home, and shuttle her young, carless co-worker Kyle (Dustin Ashley) back and forth to their uneventful job in a baby doll factory.

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Soderbergh could have easily recruited his nonprofessional cast at Wal-Mart. Like Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who used ordinary citizens to give his films their aura of authenticity, Soderbergh seems less interested in acting chops as he is in a defiantly plain and simple human equivalent to his spare, utilitarian high-def video aesthetic.

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A woman of seemingly modest appetites, Martha's wants and desires seem to extend to the crullers at the local doughnut shop. Her fantasy life seems equally meager. At work she imagines how she will spend her $50 bonus — if she gets it.

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But as she sits in church illuminated by an eerie white light, Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough apparently mean to suggest some reservoir of thought or feeling that Bubble's dialogue or plot never address.

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Ever so cagily, Soderbergh gives other indications that there is more going on beneath Martha's pink-faced, perpetually even-keeled exterior. One morning on their way to work, apropos of nothing, Martha pulls a camera out of her purse at the doughnut store and snaps a picture of Kyle.

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"You're my best friend," she observes to her typically flatline companion, who looks like he would go along with a bank robbery if he could get a ride home.

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Martha's suggestion of affection for Kyle is about as close to subtext as Soderbergh ever comes in his minimalist, vaguely unsettling drama, which seems to come from another planet than the director's slickly produced Hollywood remakes of Solaris and Ocean's Eleven. Even more than Soderbergh's early indie work, such as sex, lies and videotape or King of the Hill, Bubble evokes the low-brow trailer-park tragedies of Harmony Korine or the robotically amoral citizenry of Todd Solondz's Palindromes.

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Trouble bursts Martha and Kyle's bubble with the arrival of single mother Rose (Misty Wilkins), who takes a job at the doll factory. Ingratiating herself into Martha and Kyle's tight little duo, Rose is soon begging rides from Martha and sharing cigarette breaks with Kyle. Despite her doll-like appearance, Rose is calculation incarnate, the kind of person who divides the world into those she can get something from and those she can't.

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Rose's mercenary bead on the world gets Martha's moral hackles up and introduces a new dimension to Bubble that yields unexpected results.

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Bubble is part of a package of six high-definition movies Soderbergh will direct for HDNet Films, in which the film, cable and DVD releases will be available to consumers simultaneously. The sparse, emotionally introverted, at times just underwhelming attitude of Bubble seems in part tied to this six-picture deal, as if Soderbergh were pacing himself, reluctant to blow his wad right away.

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Bubble doesn't exactly have the passion or the vision to suggest this is the creative itch Soderbergh has been longing to scratch. In its own way, Bubble's defiant banality suggests Soderbergh has gone too far in his antithesis to Hollywood flash. With five more films to go, at least he has time to find a project equal to his ambition.