''Bubble" is a stunt in search of a movie, and it almost finds one.
Steven Soderbergh's latest little provocation -- as opposed to the big, slick Hollywood movies like ''Ocean's 11" with which he pays the bills -- has been raising a lot of dust in the film industry because of its unusual release pattern: It's arriving today in theaters and on DVD, and can be seen in two showings tonight on the HDNet cable channel. That's a lot of exposure for a murder mystery so minimalist it makes ''Dragnet" look like a rave.
The particulars of how and where the movie gets seen don't concern us here, for ''Bubble" has novelty enough as a movie. Soderbergh traveled out to the Ohio River Valley and landed in the town of Belpre, where he cast local amateurs and had them improvise dialogue from an outline by screenwriter Coleman Hough. The film was shot on high-definition video in mundane locations: diners, one-bedroom houses, a creepily surreal doll factory. You might mistake the results for reality TV or a home movie if not for a stylistic rigor that's the mark of a born filmmaker.
The movie's a three-hander, really -- a triangle made not out of passion but loneliness. The central character, Martha (Debbie Doebereiner, a KFC general manager in real life), is a dumpy, middle-age factory worker with an air of slightly desperate good cheer. She has curly red hair and myopic eyes, and she clings a little too closely to her co-worker, a quiet young man named Kyle (Dustin James Ashley). They have their small routine: Martha gives Kyle a ride from his mother's house every morning, shares a lunch break with him, drives him home. To her, he's a close friend and her one link with the rest of the world. To him, she's just Martha.
Then Rose is hired to work on the doll assembly line. A sharp-angled girl played by Misty Dawn Wilkins -- what a name! She could be a stripper or an air freshener -- Rose has a 2-year-old daughter and an angry ex-boyfriend (Kyle Smith), and it quickly becomes apparent that she's sizing up Kyle as husband material. It also becomes clear that she's a first-class user underneath the slacker exterior.
Soderbergh films all this with flat, uninflected camera angles and yawning gaps of dead air between the lines of dialogue. The conceit is that this is what fly-over country's really like -- that middle America is a no-man's-land of aimless clock-punching existence and stifling banality and the occasional burp of violence. Someone in ''Bubble" ends up murdered and someone else did it, but it almost doesn't matter who, since the people here are almost as interchangeable as doll parts. The film's style holds a mirror to characters who have no reflections.
Well . . . maybe. For all its showy slowness, ''Bubble" gets intriguing performances from its cast -- I won't forget Doebereiner's Martha for a long time -- but the way it treats them as found objects borders on the insufferable. The film shares with ''Junebug" and other heartland dramas made by smart young filmmakers the rather snotty assumption that it's one big McWasteland out there. There's truth to that, certainly, but there are other, less easy truths lying between the coasts if directors would bother to look for them. Soderbergh has made an experiment worth seeing, but how much do you want to bet his actors have richer lives than the characters they're playing, even if those lives look just as ordinary?
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.