Review: How in the world did Judd Apatow’s ‘The Bubble’ go so horribly wrong?
Almost since the beginning of his big-screen career, there’s been a disconnect between the films that Judd Apatow just produces and those he also directs. As the undisputed producer-king (and king-maker) of the modern studio comedy, he’s had a hand in many of the most beloved, unapologetically broad, beautifully silly comedic touchstones of the 21st century: “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers,” “Bridesmaids,” etc.
As a writer-director however, his style, though still casually profane, has tended toward the dramedic, the bittersweet, the indulgently navel-gazey. From passion project “Funny People” to “The King of Staten Island,” Apatow has more often dealt in life-stage observation laced with humor, than in jokiness laced with insight, and perhaps now, 17 years after breaking big with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” the writer-director wants to distance himself from comedy altogether. If so, “The Bubble” is a great start — with it, he has directed, produced and written (alongside “Lady Dynamite” co-creator Pam Brady) a movie so staggeringly unfunny as to be barely recognizable as comedy at all.
To suffer through this ordeal is not just to not laugh, it’s to wonder if you will ever laugh again. It’s to find it hard to remember what laughter is, or how it used to feel to do it. The would-be-wacky tale of a movie cast holed up in a stately British hotel trying to shoot a blockbuster franchise entry under pandemic conditions, “The Bubble” is so charmless, joyless and jokeless — and at more than two hours so endless — that by its close you have to check your smile muscles for signs of atrophy. How could anything, possibly, go this wrong, for this long?
The problems run bone deep, much like the cringe. The premise, obviously devised in the early stages of lockdown, already feels so dated as to be practically prehistoric — which is maybe appropriate, given it was sparked by reports coming from the “Jurassic World: Dominion” set, which had to pivot midway through production to the then-brave new world of COVID-restricted shooting. This manifests in “The Bubble” in the film-within-the-film, “Cliff Beasts 6,” which features a motley crew of idiots stumbling around a climate-charred forest atop Mt. Everest battling flying dinosaur beasties, and is still somehow infinitely less dumb than the film that surrounds it.
The cast is stacked with actors who’ve been funny in other movies. Their highly relatable plight begins when Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan) is persuaded by her agent (Rob Delaney) to rejoin the franchise that made her a middleweight star for its sixth installment. This entails her flying to England to quarantine in a luxury hotel for a fortnight (cue an enormously lazy montage of eating pizza and watching TV in an increasingly messy room — satire!), before reuniting with the cast and crew, all of whom resent her for bowing out of “Cliff Beasts 5.” They comprise Lauren (Leslie Mann) and her on-off husband Dustin (David Duchovny), Sean (Keegan-Michael Key), an insecure B-lister who has started up a wellness cult, and Howie (cruelly underused British comedian Guz Khan). There are also two neophyte “Cliff Beasts” cast members: Krystal (Iris Apatow, oddly enough the movie’s MVP), a TikTok star brought in to boost the Gen Z demographic appeal, and Dieter Bravo, played by Pedro Pascal, a good actor whose Hollywood movie career suggests that maybe his agent is mad at him.
They are checked in by a lovelorn receptionist (Maria Bakalova, no idea why), corralled by suave producer Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz, who could sleepwalk the role of supercilious Brit, and does), COVID-monitored by Gunther (Harry Trevaldwyn, a brilliant Instagram skit-maker, though you’d never know from this), waited on by Bola (a blip in the ascendancy of rising British star Samson Kayo), hectored via Zoom call by studio executive Paula (Kate McKinnon, literally phoning it in) and, on the odd occasion they all make it down to one of the green-screen soundstages, directed by Sundance hotshot Darren (an indefinably creepy Fred Armisen).
This, however, is obviously not enough in terms of star power, so Apatow spackles the already unholy mess with pointless cameos, often via video link, from Maria Bamford, John Cena, James McAvoy, John Lithgow, a deepfake Benedict Cumberbatch and Daisy Ridley, who delivers the line, “I have no idea why I’m here.” You and me both, sister. Most crushingly, Beck (what?) shows up projected onto the side of a building singing “Ladies Night” (why?), which provides an excuse for yet another interminable dance sequence, because when in doubt, as Apatow clearly is very often, there’s nothing more hilarious than a random, not terribly well choreographed boogie.
Perhaps that’s overly harsh: There are not just dance routines to fall back on, there are also vomit and pee gags and a bit where Pascal‘s character gets explosive diarrhea. Which are all necessary to distract from such toothless inside-baseball Hollywood satire, such witless, outdated pandemic observation and the sheer Saharan humor desert that is the dialogue. Pity the actors, delivering punchlines that have somehow come unstuck from their setups and are doomed to wander around hunting for them, like wailing toddlers separated from their parents at the supermarket. One of the tired ongoing tropes is the soullessness of green screen (which also makes the film quite spectacularly ugly to watch), but “The Bubble” feels like it was itself shot against green screen’s humor equivalent, and no one noticed they forgot to add the jokes in post-production.
“At least we tried to make a movie. They can’t judge us for that,” wheedles director Darren at the end of the film, incorrectly. It’s an appropriately craven note to close on, for a movie that lost faith in itself roughly 119 minutes before. And the way it lands as an added kick in the teeth to the few who manage to make it that far is a perfect example of its colossally misjudged tone. It’s actively aggravating to witness such a blatant attempt to preempt wholly justified criticism by playing the prospective victim, as if only a big mean bully would find fault with a bunch of millionaire buddies cavorting around a stately home for a few months, when they did it in the noble name of entertaining us dowdy masses on our sagging sofas in our crappy apartments, trying to wring a little added value out of our newly hiked Netflix subscriptions.
If it hadn’t stooped so low, it might even still be possible to hope they all did have fun making this movie, because for sure there’s none to be had watching it. As it is, to avoid the sour taste of being sold an absolute dud, then chided for disliking it, the best option is simply not to hit play, or better yet, to log out, turn off your device and sit a moment, listening to the blessed silence. I promise you, there are more jokes in it than there are in “The Bubble.”
Rated: R, for language throughout, sexual content, drug use and some violence
Running time: 2 hour, 6 minutes
Playing: Available on Netflix
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