"Ocean's Eleven" and "Twelve" must have lit a fire under Steven Soderbergh to direct a film that is, in spirit, far from Hollywood. In financially depressed Ohio, the lives of three doll factory workers are overturned. Soderbergh uses a non-pro cast to deftly sketch the dullness of a mid-American burg normal enough for a Stephen King horror extravaganza.

“Ocean’s Eleven” and “Twelve” must have lit a fire under Steven Soderbergh to direct a film that is, in spirit, far from Hollywood. In financially depressed Ohio, the lives of three doll factory workers are overturned. Soderbergh uses a non-pro cast to deftly sketch the dullness of a mid-American burg normal enough for a Stephen King horror extravaganza. Here, an unmotivated murder, instead of stirring emotions, unveils a frightening moral vacuum. The stuff of limited release and TV sales, this likeable if unexciting little tale could swing Euro arthouse audiences with its sly humor and commentary on the U.S.

The first 50 minutes are devoted to building up the small-town, empty-pocket atmosphere through well-chosen detail. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a plump red-haired woman in her 30s, lives with and cares for her aging father (Omar Cowan). She is one of five employees in a factory that mass-produces plastic baby dolls.

Martha has developed a connection with taciturn young Kyle (Dustin Ashley). Their lunchtime conversations are so numbingly bland they’re almost funny. She puts more stock in their “friendship” than he does, and when the pretty Rose (Misty Wilkins) is hired as a temp worker, Martha instantly goes on the defensive.

Compared with the unflinching dullness of her co-workers, Rose drives in an extra gear. When she goes to clean a woman’s house, she scandalizes Martha by taking a bath in the absent lady’s bathtub.

She admits to Kyle that she was a rebel in high school and ran away from home at 15. She also has a 2-year-old daughter, the fruit of an unhappy relationship with her ex-b.f. Jake (K. Smith).

Rose asks Martha to baby-sit while she goes out on a date. The scene in Rose’s cramped living room develops with off-handed horror as Martha realizes Rose’s date is with Kyle. Rose and Kyle’s evening unfolds with ritual banality, but when Rose gets home, she finds Jake waiting for her. They have a shouting match in front of a terrified Martha, who is further insulted when she tries to talk to Rose about it, and Rose tells her to mind her own business.

The next morning, Rose is found strangled on her living room floor. Neither the police inspector (Decker Moody) nor the audience is long left in doubt about whodunit. The last 20 minutes of the film nevertheless have a curious fascination, as everyone tries to figure out why the crime was committed.

Not even the murderer can come up with a plausible answer, which seems to be precisely the point. The final shots of smiling, empty-faced dolls — another classic horror image — conjure up nothing so much as a gaping void, a “bubble” far from the real world.

The three principals, all non-professionals from the Ohio location where the film was shot, are well cast and skilfully directed. There is little to suggest an emotional spark capable of filling their loneliness or bridging their isolation. Even the relationships between Martha and her father, Kyle and his mother (Laurie Lee), and Rose and her daughter are perfunctory and unstated. One of the sources of the pic’s subtle humor is the actors’ under-reaction to dramatic events, a case where their natural deadpan, particularly Doebereiner’s wide-eyed sameness, probably has the jump on an expressive, trained actor.

The dialogue has a pleasing low-key realism that complements Soderbergh’s understated direction, though one can sense a firm hand always guiding the straightforward story. Lenser Peter Andrews (Soderbergh’s pseudonym) goes for even lighting and simple framing that underline the ironic charm of the ultra-familiar. Editor Mary Ann Bernard (also Soderbergh) delivers a smoothly cut film with no dead time.

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Production

A Section Eight Prod./Magnolia Pictures/2929 Entertainment/HDNet Films production. (International sales: 2929 Intl., Los Angeles.) Produced by Gregory Jacobs. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay by Coleman Hough.

Crew

Camera (color), Peter Andrews; editor, Mary Ann Bernard; music, Robert Pollard; sound (Dolby Digital), Larry Blake. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (non-competing), Sept. 2, 2005. Running time: 73 MIN.

With

Martha - Debbie Doebereiner Kyle - Dustin Ashley Rose - Misty Wilkins Jake - K. Smith
With: Laurie Lee, Omar Cowan, Decker Moody, Daniel R. Christian, Phyllis Workman, Madison Wilkins, Thomas R. Davis, Ross Clegg, Scott Smeeks, M. Stephen Dee, Leonora K. Hornbeck, Katherine Beaumier, Joyce Brookhart.
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