Judd Apatow’s newest film, The Bubble, sees the director take on too many subjects within the span of a single movie. All at once, Apatow lampoons the COVID-19 pandemic, big-budget action franchises, TikTok stardom, celebrities and the egos they grow believing they’re better than the average person, what a closed film set looks like under COVID (characterized by an endless amount of safety and health restrictions), and the disparity between how regular people handled the pandemic versus how the super-rich handled it.
The end result is a movie that is weak in its satirization, meandering in its pacing, poorly constructed in its screenplay, and just generally unfunny in terms of its quality. Compared to any of Apatow’s films prior, it’s easily his weakest, most disappointing effort to date, and bound to disappoint longtime fans of the director.
The Bubble is a meta-comedy of sorts satirizing show business, celebrity status, and the increasingly cheesy sequels that make up Hollywood action/adventure franchises. Karen Gillan stars as Carol Cobb, a second-rate actor permanently tied to a series of action movies named Cliff Beasts (a direct parody of the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World series). Despite her clear hatred for the series and pretty much everyone tied to it (her fellow stars and the movie’s producers), Carol signs on for the sixth installment of the franchise after starring in a critically-panned movie that nearly destroyed her career.
Journeying to England for filming, Carol is joined by her costars, the film’s production staff, and health coordinators whose job is to enforce COVID regulations. Among the characters working on the film is Lauren Van Chance (Leslie Mann) and Dustin Mulray (David Duchovny), a toxic Hollywood power couple whose massive egos continually delay the movie’s production; Sean Knox (Keegan-Michael Key), an actor who promotes a self-wellness brand with an uncomfortable amount of similarities to a cult; Dieter Bravo (Pedro Pascal), an alcoholic, drug- and sex-addicted actor new to the franchise; Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow), a popular teenage TikTok star who has no acting experience and who is only there as a way to attract younger audience members to the series; and Darren Eigan (Fred Armisen), a Edgar Wright lookalike and socially awkward indie filmmaker who has since sold out to work on Cliff Beasts.
From the start, the production of Cliff Beasts is rife with issues. Before they can officially begin filming, the actors and principal crew members are required to undergo a mandatory two-week-long self-quarantine. When filming finally begins, the cast’s internal problems—both with each other and with themselves (drug dependency, crippling self-doubt, and self-consciousness)—further exacerbates the movie’s production. COVID-related issues also prevent the crew from shooting the film, requiring everyone to undergo additional two-week quarantine periods before they can resume filming. And if that weren’t enough, the cast’s erratic behavior and constant desire to escape from what seems like an endless shooting schedule forces the studio to send in a crazed, dangerously dedicated security manager (Ross Lee) to make sure the actors never leave the countryside hotel the movie is being filmed in.
The Bubble is a movie that has a ton going on in it, from a satirical look at how a movie is made to life under COVID-19. Parts of the movie may be clever—the montage showing Carol over her two-week self-quarantine depicting the monotony and near-insanity she suffers from the social isolation, for example, perfectly illustrates just how frustrating, helpless, and mind-numbingly boring that two-week quarantine period is—but Apatow’s decision to parody so many differing subjects take the movie’s comedic edge away. Watching it is a lot like watching a standup comedian continuously starting jokes without finishing any of his current ones. And by leaning so heavily on the Hollywood film industry, showing the nuts and bolts of a studio mid-movie production and featuring a crew of comically unlikable celebrities, Apatow loses that blend of sympathy and relatability we feel towards the usual heroes of his films (lovable, lazy underachievers), causing the movie to have disappointingly little heart or emotion outside of the occasional instances of COVID-related subject matter. (If you ever had to stay holed up in your room for two weeks because of a positive COVID test, you can probably relate to Carol’s breakdown or the cast’s terrified response upon learning they may have to self-quarantine again.)
For as wide a net Apatow casts when it comes to the subject matter to mock, there are a few moments that are genuinely funny. The film’s exploration of celebrities’ experiences during the pandemic brilliantly parodied real-life comments made by prominent, wealthy A-list stars—such as Ellen DeGeneres saying quarantine is like “jail,” as she sits in a massive mansion in her uber-rich Beverly Hills neighborhood—a comment referenced in the movie when Carol says that being confined to the film set is like being “in prison.” Kate McKinnon, who plays a powerful studio executive overseeing Cliff Beasts 6, in particular, does a fine job playing the cutthroat, wealthy, charming-while-in-public-yet-ruthless-in-private Hollywood personality who is the first to claim how “horrible” the pandemic has been, even as she’s shown with a new, exotic backdrop in each Zoom call she makes (Switzerland, coastal Italy, the African plains, and so on).
The movie is probably funniest in this regard—the lengths Apatow goes to in showing how deluded the cast is in thinking they are legitimate victims of COVID, even as they live in a five-star hotel and enjoy perks no regular person can even dream of having at their disposal. When the movie grows serious and tries to establish a genuine emotional connection to the characters, it falls flat.
Take Karen Gillan’s Carol, for example, whose problems, admittedly, suck—she wants to break away from the Cliff Beasts franchise and become a serious actor, but is unable to detach herself from the series; it’s like a weird toxic relationship, one that Carol wants to escape from but that would also mean cause any actor’s worst fear: irrelevancy—if she leaves, she’s no longer a star. Additionally, as she’s away from her home, her deadbeat boyfriend breaks up with her, meets a new girl, and begins living in Carol’s home while she’s confined to England, powerless to do anything to stop him.
We don’t know whether Apatow means for us to laugh at Carol’s problems or form some sort of deeper, emotional connection with them. The same could be said of someone like Key’s Sean, an outwardly confident self-help guru who expresses severe self-doubt in private, and who, again, we’re not sure whether to laugh at or sympathize with. The only exception to this is Mann’s and Duchovny’s characters, both of whom are hilarious in their roles as vapid, self-obsessed, raging narcissistic stars who try to have a hand in every element of a movie’s production. In the movie, their characters are little more than stereotypes, but it’s for that very reason why they’re so enjoyable to watch. Apatow doesn’t dig too deeply into any emotional nuances or complexities about their characters, portraying them as wonderfully two-dimensionally and cliched as possible.
It’s this element of the movie that is most clearly missing—suffering from confusing and random tonal shifts between slightly serious and empathetic to a more humorous tone that keeps us from laughing the entire time. When the movie tries for spoof, it does reasonably well—the movie within the movie scenes showing the utter ridiculousness of Cliff Beasts 6 are the most fun to watch, full of an over-reliance on CGI, terrible acting, and groan-worthy plot elements that make absolutely no sense (dinosaurs performing orchestrated dance moves alongside Iris Apatow’s TikTok star). It’s a comedy that’s funniest when it’s operating as close to the surface as possible. And yet, as a director who specializes in presenting misfit protagonists in a sincere, empathetic light, Apatow seems almost unable to help himself in going deeper into the characters, probing into their problems and presenting them as seriously as possible, blunting the comedy severely.
But even from a non-humor standpoint, The Bubble has plenty of issues. For the most part, the movie lacks any semblance of a plot, with nothing much really happening in terms of the story; the characters are just there, filming a movie that will seemingly never wrap production, slowly going crazy as the months they work on the movie continuously extends. It could be argued that almost all of Apatow’s movies lack a plot—as great as The 40-Year-Old Virgin or The King of Staten Island is, they’re more character studies than they are story- or plot-driven—but here, the lack of plot seems achingly apparent.
Compared to his earlier work, The Bubble was an experiment for Apatow. It’s one of the first movies where he ditched his usual, more grounded premises and characters and focused on the inside nature of Hollywood. The results, as seen with this film, are middling at best, and while perhaps not as awful as some other publications or websites have labeled it as (it currently has a 24% on Rotten Tomatoes), it’s far from the worst movie ever made, although it’s certainly the most disappointing in Apatow’s career so far.
The Bubble is currently streaming on Netflix.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Netflix.