When asked by an interviewer whether he felt a bit panicked about how his new movie The Bubble was so rooted in the early floundering attempts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore might seem obsolete by the time it premiered on Netflix, writer-director Judd Apatow answered:
I think I thought about it the entire time and still do. Do people need a comedy about this? What would be the purpose of that comedy? I chose to write about isolation and how the world tries to keep moving forward even though everything has changed. . . . I wanted to explore what happens when you take a pause and think about your life.
Perhaps it’s the self-seriousness of this answer that provides a clue as to why The Bubble is such a slog. You’ll have to look hard to find a comedy as long and as leaden as this one. Apatow’s sense that he’s performing a solemn public service may account for the numbing pace of the film, which undermines every effort of the more talented members of the cast to generate laughs.
Starring Karen Gillan, Fred Armisen, David Duchovny, Pedro Pascal, Keegan-Michael Key, and Leslie Mann as cast and crew members quarantined at a posh British hotel during the production of the sixth sequel to a blockbuster dinosaur franchise called Cliff Beasts, The Bubble is a strangely toothless satire of both Hollywood insanity and the bizarre experience of trying to live and work in a “bubble” mandated by COVID lockdown.
It’s almost awesome how badly it fails.
Though it’s been widely reported that the real-life inspiration for the movie was the British shoot of the 2022 big-budget sequel Jurassic World Dominion during the pandemic, where the actors were staying together at one hotel, you’d never know it was an insider’s take on the film industry in crisis. The characters are so generic that they barely register.
David Duchovny plays Dustin Mulray, the egotistical star who’s always trying to rewrite the script, and Leslie Mann (Judd Apatow’s wife) is the vapid and passive-aggressive Lauren Van Chance, Mulray’s costar in the franchise as well as his estranged wife and on-and-off love interest. So far, so blah. Keegan-Michael Key has a slightly more colorful role as a supporting actor in Cliff Beasts who’s become a maddeningly positive and persistent wellness guru for a brand called Harmony Ignite. He has to keep reassuring his castmates, “It’s not a cult!”
Pedro Pascal plays Dieter Bravo, a once-revered Method actor going to seed, but the script gives him almost nothing to do but hang around the hotel looking unkempt and hitting on every woman he sees. Compare that to another Hollywood satire, 2008’s Tropic Thunder, featuring Robert Downey Jr as Kirk Lazarus, an Australian Method actor so ludicrously committed to full immersion in his roles that he forgets he’s a white man after he has “pigmentation alteration” surgery so he can play a gruff black sergeant serving in the Vietnam War. Then, after Lazarus has to play a role within the role, disguising himself as a Vietnamese local, he’s hanging by a mental thread, raving, “I know who I am! I’m the dude playing the dude pretending to be the other dude!”
You could go right down the list the same way. Instead of Tropic Thunder’s immortal Les Grossman, the hilariously frightening power broker portrayed by an unrecognizable and inspired Tom Cruise — who acknowledged that he created the character based on producers he worked with, probably led by Scott Rudin — The Bubble has Kate McKinnon doing barely amusing skit-like bits as an icy smiling blonde studio executive checking in for updates on Zoom from various exotic vacation spots.
There are one or two moments when a line of dialogue works, and an actor jumps on it and makes it pay off. For example, Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan), the already washed-up starlet who bailed out on Cliff Beasts 5 and is being punished for it by everyone when she returns for Cliff Beasts 6, is falling apart in lockdown and makes an emotional speech of commiseration with her suffering castmates. She reassures them, “This isn’t me acting!”
Duchovny as Mulray replies earnestly, “We know. That felt real.” So that’s one mild chuckle.
There are some charming people working hard in small parts to create something here. Samson Kayo and Guz Khan, both currently appearing in the larky Taika Waititi comedy series Our Flag Means Death, are effortlessly enjoyable whether they’ve got good lines or not, and Maria Bakalova of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a welcome presence, too. Depressingly, there are a lot of unfunny cameo appearances by famous people such as Beck, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rob Delaney, John Lithgow, John Cena, James McAvoy, and Daisy Ridley.
But the main point of morbid fascination about the movie is recognizing how much we don’t need a comedy about this, which answers Judd Apatow’s initial question. Gags about hating the swab-up-the-nose tests? About going stir-crazy in the two-week quarantine period? About making increasingly elaborate TikTok videos (led by the director’s daughter Iris Apatow, playing a social media influencer cast in her first film role)?
We’re still in the pandemic, but we’re two-year veterans now, and nothing seems so dated as the newbie experience of it presented as if it were fresh material when it already generated ten thousand memes. The public made its own comedy about it, collectively. We don’t need no stinking Hollywood types to tell us massively obvious things “about isolation and how the world tries to keep moving forward even though everything has changed.”
What’s changed for a made man in Hollywood like Judd Apatow, anyway? He goes right on writing and directing movies — good, bad, or indifferent — and casting his family members in them. They’re in a bubble, all right, but it’s not a pandemic-created one.