We haven’t quite entered the post-pandemic phase of movie making either creatively or indeed in how storytelling and Covid intersect. The Bubble, for our sins, will go down on record as one of the first examples.
Conventional wisdom since 2020 has been that audiences wouldn’t want to see Covid-19 reflected on cinema screens or generally in entertainment and are reaching for escapism. The world is too grim, too real, too tragic and desperate, that we want movies, TV and so on to not remind us of that. Rentals of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion might have spiked during lockdown but only thanks to how prophetic it turned out to be. Audiences, at that stage, the thinking went, didn’t want to see Covid beyond news pieces.
The climate now has started to change. Soderbergh’s Kimi, for instance, recently gave us a de Palma-style taut thriller in the shadow of the pandemic. Filmmakers and creatives are beginning to appreciate the possibilities, as Covid evolves into a virus the West learns to live with and adapt to, in reflecting how the pandemic has perhaps permanently changed our psychology, our habits, our world. We can likely expect across this decade a raft of projects that shine a light on Covid in myriad ways, be it drama, horror, science-fiction and, yes, comedy.
Which brings us back to The Bubble, a film that would not exist were it not for Covid. Another thing we have the virus to blame for.
Look, let’s not beat around the bush: The Bubble is awful. Often painfully so.
The premise, it stands to reason, theoretically has promise. Judd Apatow’s film revolves around a cast of vapid, narcissistic Hollywood stars who come to a film set in England during the pandemic to make the sixth film in a hugely successful franchise series called ‘Cliff Beasts’, only to find themselves subjected to Covid isolations and production shut downs, clashing egos, a fly on the wall documentarian filming behind the scenes footage, and the continued restrictions Covid places on how a film can be made in this climate. It is, on paper, a comedic goldmine.
Apatow equally stuffs his ensemble with genuinely strong talent. Karen Gillan, ostensibly heading up the film as Carol Cobb, playing on the action girl persona she has honed in the MCU and Jumanji franchises, who has to return cap in hand for ‘Cliff Beasts 6’ given her career is in the skids; Pedro Pascal as a somewhat tortured artist called Dieter Bravo, desperate to combat isolation with sex; David Duchovny as Dustin Mulray, a cultured lothario who believes his lines are better than what’s in the script; Apatow’s family regulars in his wife Leslie Mann as Lauren Van Chance, a washed up star and Dustin’s ex-wife, and Apatow’s daughter Iris as a vacuous social media star called Krystal Kris. The list goes on. Talent signed up to put their name to this.
Though he has always been relatively divisive, you can’t deny Apatow’s comedic chops either. He is uneven but for every Funny People you’ll get a The 40 Year Old Virgin. For my money, in recent years, the best thing he has done is the Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck, which he crucially didn’t end up writing. This isn’t to say he is a poor writer—he isn’t—but The Bubble, if it was ever going to work, needed a script that wasn’t clearly written during lockdown and then presumably little proof read before it went before cameras. All of Apatow’s shortcomings as a creative are visible in The Bubble, which so frequently relies on dance routines, aimless plot twists and tortured jokes to get it through.
Apatow never seems to know when to cut on indulgent projects like this. He made the same mistake—though less egregiously—on This Is 40, basically a Leslie Mann vanity project, another picture bloated to a point the original core comedic aspect is lost. Such an effect is rendered times ten on The Bubble. This film did not need to be two hours plus. There is absolutely no justification for it, even with a fairly sizeable ensemble cast to service. His story isn’t exactly festooned with plot. The central idea has run out of steam well before an hour in, which makes the second and final hour pretty hard going. Come the uncanny valley scene featuring an A-list actor toward the last act, you’ll know the point Apatow’s film has lost all comic acuity.
Indeed, does it have any comic acuity? That’s probably subjective. People will find things here to laugh at. You might enjoy a genuinely amusing cameo from James McAvoy (one of numerous stars bigger than anyone in The Bubble who pop up briefly). You might like Keegan Michael-Key’s energetic performance as a middle aged man competing with an influencer half his age. There are ideas here, both in terms of character and concept. Apatow clearly has soaked up a number of pandemic affections that he has fused with the egocentric vicissitudes of the ‘Cliff Beasts’ stars. Take the production assistants wilfully becoming essentially butlers and slaves to the quarantining stars who believe locking down with allow them to forge a deeper bond. “What if we become proper friends?” one asks. “You won’t” is the experienced reply.
The Bubble ultimately never creates the kind of comic grotesques you want it to. Apatow seems to hold back. Krystal is tapped for sympathy as a child pretending to be a grown up; Dustin & Lauren could have sparred like a Burton & Taylor but just end up bickering without much fire; Carol shows none of the usual caustic toughness Gillan has proven she’s so good at, and can use for comic effect, and bobs around the story; and Dieter is just played for existential weirdness (Pascal really is slumming it here). They all seem half-formed constructs who amble along in a script that requires them to run away here, dance there, enter montage, rinse and repeat. You also wonder why Apatow didn’t just have these actors play twisted versions of themselves, rather than fictional characters, as instantly that might have made the picture funnier and more engaging. If you can’t quite call the film episodic then it never seems to have any genuine comedic or dramatic impetus.
Partly this is Apatow’s style. He’s a laid back comedic filmmaker who languishes in most of his projects. Knocked Up—a film I liked a lot at the time but one suspects will not have aged well—very much fit this mould. The aforementioned This Is 40 was the same. Funny People—a very ironic title—is his chief example of that. Yet often, even in films that don’t fully work, Apatow pulls this off with more audience willingness than The Bubble, which feels torturously long. It is certainly overlong at two hours but 80 minutes in, it felt like 800 minutes had passed. Perhaps this makes it a decent metaphor for lockdown in that time just seemed to stretch out with each scene feeling vaguely similar to what came before. The Bubble just seems to exist on the same register from the opening to the closing scene.
Ultimately, it feels half thought out, which is dangerous for comedy. It’s the equivalent of a stand up comic going on stage with ideas for jokes but half of the set not worked out and then they need to rely on the audience’s goodwill to laugh through to the end. That’s The Bubble. Not offensively bad. Not derivative as such (although it copies tropes and structural ideas from Apatow’s brand of louche bro-heavy comedy across the last 20 years). And not without untapped potential in the pandemic or post-Covid world, which better creatives will eventually start mining for comic situations and jokes that connect with audiences about their experience. That’s not The Bubble. Apatow’s film is as much rote Hollywood filmmaking spoofery as it is exploring the realities of making movies in the midst of a pandemic.
The cast clearly had huge fun making The Bubble. Good for them. It certainly doesn’t translate.
DIRECTOR: Judd Apatow
WRITER: Judd Apatow
CAST: Karen Gillan, Pedro Pascal, David Duchovny, Leslie Mann, Keegan Michael-Key, Iris Apatow, Peter Serafinowicz