To avoid being pigeonholed, Steven Soderbergh forges a fetish out of his own eclecticism, yet Bubble is naggingly Soderberghian, namely the ugly child of Erin Brockovich and Full Frontal, neither especially comely to start with. The news, meanwhile, have been centered around the project's innovative distribution, released simultaneously in theaters, HDNet Films, and DVDs, and the perversely uncommercial nature of the picture is the joke, the director grinning while the rest of his litter, reportedly four or five more high-definition shoots, is already lined up. The humor of Bubble is similarly submerged, a dead-end worker deadpanning about vague dreams ("I'm ready for the beach"), muted excitement over reaching a day's quota or getting a free weekend, a flatlining doll factory milked for all its metaphorical details, plastic baby heads and limbs emerging leaking out of molds, a visage methodically equipped with peepers and glued-on wig. (The vast, alienated industrial expanses are Red Desert before the crayons, or Soderbergh's apology to maestro Antonioni for Eros, maybe?) In any case, who gets the laugh? Certainly not the working-class characters, whose drab, zombiefied existence denies them even the merest dramaturgy of a romantic triangle -- chubby, middle-aged Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), gangling twentysomething Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) and attractive single mother Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) toil under the dreary neon of their Ohio factory, made drearier still by the oppressive minimalism pasted on by Soderbergh and his writer, Coleman Hugh.
Martha tends to her elderly father, Kyle mumbles around his mom's mobile home, and Rose watches over her 2-year-old daughter; the youngsters go out on a date, Rose's hotheaded ex-boyfriend drops in for a visit, and somebody turns up killed. Investigation follows. Fargo territory, although the Coens's grotesque contempt for their pawns helps appreciate Soderbergh's less mocking (if no less distanced) view of middle-America inertia. The actors are nonprofessional, or non-actors, actually, their plainness and flatness emphasized around uneventful meals and dead-air patter; everything is miniaturized, down to the running time (73 minutes), which might be just as well, for Soderbergh's achievement is a twee one, one more curve ball tossed at anybody trying to chart some kind of career line. Will the real Steven Soderbergh please stand up? Is it the same sprightly trickster of King of the Hill and Solaris, The Limey and Traffic, Schizopolis and Out of Sight? Yes, yes, and yes. Bubble is not a movie but a doodle, a whim, possibly a bet, both self-sufficient and utterly incomplete. At the risk of letting them harden, the director undercuts his own effects, effacing naturalism intruded upon by rhyming camera movements or blinding blue suffusions set up as sudden halos around characters. Divine intervention? Personal revelation? Brechtian commentary? Soderbergh won't say, he's already on his way to Ocean's 13.
Another catch-me-if-you-can auteur, Michael Winterbottom is even more slippery. In This World and 24 Hour People can come out the same year, Code 46 segues into 9 Songs, and now here is Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. The novel adapted is Laurence Sterne's 18th-century jaunt, a book about itself, the possibilities of life and narrative and, noted here, a "postmodern classic before there was any modernism to be posted about." The biography of a gentleman gets sidetracked by its own narrator, who addresses the reader directly, "I am getting ahead of myself -- I am not yet born." Unfilmable, of course: Rivette conjured up similar pretzeling in Celine and Julie Go Boating, but Winterbottom understands that a complete transplant of Sterne's wall-breaking will only sprain his neck. He gives it a go, with Steve Coogan playing both Tristram and his powder-wigged father, wryly regaling the viewer through a garden of irises, freeze-frames, split-screens, shot-sliding cuts and computer effects. The main character is about to be born, aaaaand... "Cut." Out of the fastidiously arranged period drama and into the behind-the-scenes graininess of the film-within-the-film, Nino Rota music appropriately swelling; Steve Coogan is now playing "Steve Coogan," comically self-centered and insecure, particularly since his co-star, Rob Brydon (playing "himself," also), appears taller than him in the picture.
Winterbottom's Full Frontal, then? Not to worry, Tristram Shandy is a far more inclusive arabesque, never less than self-reflexive about its self-reflexivity but amiable in its meta-nudging. When not bitching about being fed into an immense plastic womb, Coogan scrambles around the set for a quiet moment with his girlfriend (Kelly MacDonald), endures Brydon's imitation of him, and tries not to sleep with his cinephiliac assistant (Naomie Harris), who proclaims the armor-clanking in Bresson's Lancelot du Lac the greatest of screen battles. Speaking of battles, the movie's are deemed paltry by the producers, so Gillian Anderson is imported from overseas as the Widow Wadman, along with Stephen Fry, facing the camera to spell out Sterne's various themes. Through all of this, where's the director? No Fellinesque ringleader, Winterbottom's stand-in (played by Jeremy Northam) is content to vanish into the background, mirroring perhaps the filmmaker's own tendency to cede the authorial reigns to his performers, allowing them to lead him through a work as much as he leads them. In any case, Coogan and Brydon make a beautiful squabbling couple, whether goofing on their yellowing teeth or trading Al Pacino impressions during the closing credits. Funny, yes. "But is that enough," somebody asks. "If it's genuinely funny, it is." As good a reason as any to shoot something, though Winterbottom's freshness should require no justification.
By contrast, why was Firewall shot at all? To give Harrison Ford yet another twirl in the gruff-family-man-becomes-man-of-action carrousel? At 63, Ford's amassed enough cross-referencing screen gravitas (Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, the Fugitive) to be able to suggest frayed edges to the dourly virtuous paterfamilias image he has been doling out for decades. Why not play a disillusioned commander or a seedy doctor now? But no, patriarchy must not be questioned when intruders are at the front door, the better for the Ford character, a Seattle bank executive, to regain his macho stature after pummeling the shit out of the foreign (British, natch) bad guy, Paul Bettany. A spoiler? Nah, every single detail, from the faithfully harassed wife (Virginia Madsen) to the techno-speak to the convenient sensor in the pooch's collar, has been planted by director Richard Loncraine and writer Joe Forte in advance, easily spotted long before the camera was even turned on. Less autumnal than just saggy, Ford's unsmiling persona could take a hint from Robert Forster, who has only a moment or two to essay an infinitely more limber and interesting sample of aging grace. For a would-be thriller gliding through February on its way to DVD, however, the prospect of box-office dollar signs remains the sole light guiding through the wrinkles.
Reviewed February 16, 2006.