Rated R, 73 min. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin James Ashley, Misty Dawn Wilkins, Decker Moody, K. Smith.
Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble is likely to be remembered as the adequate but unspectacular first volley in Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s modern experiment in vertical film integration. Through their new media company 2929 Entertainment, the Broadcast.com billionaires are now owners of the distribution company Magnolia Pictures, the national arthouse theatre chain Landmark Theatres (which operates the Dobie Theatre in Austin), and the HDNet cable TV channels and production company. Through the integrated cooperation of these companies, Bubble is being simultaneously released on cable and in theatres on Jan. 27, and on DVD the following Tuesday, Jan. 31. It’s a move that’s being closely watched throughout the industry, whose executives are currently rethinking their traditional production and exhibition strategies in these days of declining theatre attendance and the explosion of media formats. The Bubble release is additionally interesting in light of its being the first major instance of vertical integration in the movie industry since Reaganomics and subsequent economic policies eroded the 1948 ruling against vertical integration in the U.S. movie industry. That antitrust ruling made it illegal for one company to exercise a potentially monopolistic stranglehold by producing, releasing, and exhibiting a movie under the same corporate auspices. Digital technological advances have further streamlined 2929’s ability to manage all aspects of the film pipeline, and to kick off their new experiment the company hired the iconoclastic Soderbergh to make its first six digital features. Bubble is the first film to be made and released through this arrangement. The film is a modest story about three workers in a doll factory in a small town in Ohio, near the West Virginia border. Nonprofessional actors star in the movie, which was also shot and edited by Soderbergh, using pseudonyms. The script, by Coleman Hough (who also penned Soderbergh’s last experimental picture, Full Frontal), spends the first 50 or so minutes observing the lives of the workers before segueing into a wan murder whodunit. Dowdy Martha (Doebereiner) lives with her shut-in father and considers young Kyle (Ashley), who lives with his mother in a trailer, to be her best friend, even though her sentiments are never reciprocated. When Rose (Wilkins) starts working at the factory, her self-serving streak prompts a disruption of the status quo. The murder mystery arrives too late in the story and is too transparent to arouse much narrative curiosity, and the performances are too perfunctory, despite their welcome naturalism, to demand automatic interest. The scenes at the doll factory that reveal the details of the manufacturing process are among the film’s most interesting – which may or may not be the point of the movie. At any rate, Bubble is likely to be remembered more for its method of manufacture and release than for any inherent qualities of its own. It will also become one of the many fascinating footnotes in the always provocative career of Steven Soderbergh.
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