A few days after seeing Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, I glimpsed a poster for the film, which in prominent type promises “Another Steven Soderbergh experience.” Obviously, the point is to “brand” the director for sales and marketing purposes, and given that, you might think that Soderbergh was getting a mite self-important. But I’ve always given the guy credit for a well-developed if slightly oddball sense of humor, and I can’t believe he’s not chuckling at this tagline’s essential nonsensicality.

You read “A Spike Lee joint,” say, and you have some idea of what to expect. But “Another Steven Soderbergh experience”? What the hell is that supposed to conjure? Perhaps “another” is meant to slyly suggest that Bubble is unlike any previous Soderbergh movie experience. But what’s really droll is that the advertising come-on brazenly doesn’t give you a clue as to whether the new film belongs to one of the following, very distinct categories of known Soderbergh experiences:

1. Masterful, brilliantly mounted pieces of movie craftsmanship like sex, lies and videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich and Solaris.

2. Crass, embarrassing, big-budget studio crap that’s done just to make lots of money, i.e. Ocean’s 11 and 12.

3. Small, offbeat, in some cases quasi-experimental films like Kafka, Gray’s Anatomy, Schizopolis, Full Frontal and his HBO series K Street.

That third category, to which Bubble belongs, rubs some people the wrong way. I have critic friends who seethe at the very mention of films like Schizopolis and Full Frontal. Personally I’ve always liked the combination of effrontery and adventurousness that keeps Soderbergh undertaking projects that other big-league directors would regard as too small, too weird or potentially too career-damaging.

It is rather amazing–and in some ways, I think, commendable–that Soderbergh has become among the biggest players in Hollywood, a filmmaker who can practically write his ticket and who could do nothing but make one $100-million picture after another, yet he has repeatedly chosen to step away from the table and act like the quintessential indie upstart. You can’t imagine any big director from the generation ahead of his–Spielberg, Stone, Scorsese and co.–operating in such an iconoclastic fashion, and Soderbergh’s outsider gambits seem to have real artistic purpose, launching him into new territory and keeping him creatively fresh.

The thing is, the fact that these films may be interesting departures or gambles, when seen in the context of his work overall, doesn’t make them interesting or good films per se. The most interesting thing about Bubble is that it’s the first film to be released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and on TV (HDNet). I’ll have more to say about this fascinating and potentially significant development a little further on. For now, permit me a small sigh of regret that such a notable event reaches us in the form of a film that otherwise is so unimposing.

Bubble is not opaque or borderline incomprehensible like some low-budget Soderbergh outings. The word for it is “slight.” While conventional and well-realized from a formal perspective, its thematic ambitions and dramatic insights are all very minor, and consequently so is its impact. It would be a bit too flattering to compare it to a Raymond Carver short story; it’s more like one of those so-so Carver knockoffs that proliferate in writing programs from sea to shining sea.

Almost like a Winnebago anthropologist, Soderbergh took his High Definition camera package and ventured out to deepest West Virginia, where he and writer Coleman Hough concocted a story centered on three blue-collar lives in an ex-urban area with a depressed economy. The parts are played by non-actors recruited on location.

Kyle (Dustin Ashley) is a lanky, doe-eyed young pothead who lives with his mom. Because he hasn’t yet saved enough money to buy a car, he rides to work with Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), an older, paunchy coworker who describes Kyle as her “best friend” and seems a little sweet on him. The two work in a small factory that makes rubber dolls (I thought all these jobs were in China by now): a bit of found American Gothic semi-surrealism that comes off better than it perhaps sounds.

One day, the factory gets a new worker, Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a lissome young unmarried mom with a 2-year-old at home and the usual money problems (like Kyle, she works more than one job). As soon as the three characters are in the same room together, you can see the looks flying between Kyle and Rose, while Martha’s discomfort is palpable.

Many reviews, it seems, tell you more about the film’s story and where it goes than what I’ve just described, and that’s a shame. The narrative turn that Bubble takes a little over halfway through isn’t a great artistic coup–quite the contrary, in fact–but interested viewers deserve to discover it afresh all the same.

For my money, once the film makes that turn, it heads into formulaic and contrived genre terrain, and loses its artistic focus as a result. What’s good about the movie comes earlier, in the careful, naturalistic way Soderbergh describes his West Virginia dramatic setting and its denizens. The director (acting, as usual, as his own cinematographer, under the nom de camera of Peter Andrews) has a great eye for light, landscapes and downscale interiors, and his eloquent wide-screen compositions are chief among the film’s pleasures.

When Bubble had its U.S. premiere at last fall’s New York Film Festival, word was that some critics found it “condescending” toward its lower-class characters. Having now seen the film, I can only come to one conclusion: When certain Manhattan critics see a film dealing with a class of people they’ve never known, in a region they would never think of visiting, all they can think to say is that the film is condescending.

This is one charge that Soderbergh doesn’t deserve. Bubble–like Erin Brockovich before it–is a serious attempt to portray the kind of working-stiff lives that seldom make it onto American movie screens. And if intentions were gold, it would be a veritable mint. But Soderbergh’s enterprise is undermined by a couple of basic problems.

One is the lackluster script. Another is the acting by the cast of nonprofessionals, which is not terrible but uneven and therefore distracting. The best of the three leads, Dustin Ashley is exactly what a director wants in a “non-actor”; he seems to be just as he presumably is in real life, with a mumbly way of speaking that could well belong to any mountain stoner. Misty Dawn Wilkins as Rose has a similar naturalness, though perhaps polished by some acting lessons. As Martha, Debbie Doebereiner has the toughest role in the film and isn’t always up for the challenge; too often she sounds like she’s reading lines.

The result of these imbalances is that we remain aware we’re watching amateur thespians, and that too often throws us out of the story. Yet this aspect of the film is, of course, hardly what’s really “experimental” or innovative about Bubble.

The idea of releasing the film simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and TV was reportedly cooked up by Soderbergh along with Internet billionaires Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, who jumped into the movie game a few years ago and now own HDNet, an art-house chain and various distribution and production outfits. What they’ve done with their three-tier release of Bubble was bound to happen. The “window” between a film’s theatrical release and its appearance on TV and DVD has been shrinking rapidly, and all indicators pointed to the likelihood that it will vanish altogether.

Whether other moviemakers will rush to emulate this model remains to be seen. In the near term, perhaps not. While the strategy is arguably advantageous to the consumer, it diminishes the special status of the theatrical experience, and this at a time when theater owners are already suffering a downturn in business and concerns that DVDs and video games are permanently undermining Americans’ appetite for going out to the movies.

One thing seems certain: This potential revolution in the delivery of movies (which will continue when broadband displaces DVDs) is closely bound to the trend of big movies becoming bigger, small movies smaller still, and mid-budget movies virtually an endangered species. You can be sure that tomorrow’s big movies–e.g., the Spider Man, X-Men, Shrek and Mission Impossible franchises–will continue to start out with exclusive theatrical runs, even if these become shorter. For now, simultaneous releases only make sense for smaller, more specialized films.

And the question remains: Why should filmgoers visit a film like Bubble on any format? Given that Soderbergh says he intends to make five more films like this one, I hope the next time out he’ll try for another innovation–good script. Otherwise, the movie’s sponsors have nothing to tout other than “Another Steven Soderbergh experience.” Whatever that is.

For more on non-traditional means of releasing movies, see Monitor on page 37. x