Planning is important for projects of any sort, but one can argue it is doubly so for satirical ones. After all, a satire needs to poke fun at a subject in a way that provides something of insight. Not only that, but the commentary has to be clear enough for a decently-sized audience to understand. So if there is no planning to make all of this a reality, odds are that it will either have nothing to say or so much to say that it becomes muddled. Normally, I would go back in time to highlight a few satires that went wrong due to lack of preparation. But now that The Bubble exists, reaching out for one is as strenuous as saying a letter of the alphabet.
Not that I expected a film directed by Judd Apatow to have extensive planning for its humor, mind you. For almost two decades, improvisation has been a part of his identity. However, even in movies like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Trainwreck, there were hard limits. If the actors had a blast coming up with a gag on the spot, it would make it into the final product. This remains true even when a gag ruined the narrative pacing. And nowhere are these hard limits more clear than in a movie made during the COVID-19 pandemic about a movie made during the COVID-19 pandemic. You would think a film with a premise like that would mine solid humor out of modern working conditions. However, it is so haphazard that it makes me regret everything nice I’ve said about Apatow as a filmmaker.
Fitting that The Bubble centers on the equally haphazard production of the action blockbuster Cliff Beasts 6. It’s not just that we have a cast and crew trying to make an effects-heavy project with pandemic-induced restraints. This marks the return of star Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan) after abandoning her franchise co-stars on Cliff Beasts 5. With Carol’s lack of loyalty and restrained social interactions in place, it makes the time spent quarantining in a hotel a tense one. We also have producer Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz) and director Darren Eigan (Fred Armisen) to ruffle feathers with the actors.
There are many avenues to take this comedically, and Apatow and co-writer Pam Brady make the poor decision of taking as many as possible. Of course, an altered work environment is at play. As such, we get scenes where people take COVID tests and react to cotton swabs going up their noses. And in one inspired moment, we see a body double wearing a green mask so that the face of an absent actor can be applied in post. But just as often, it’s a formless depiction of people losing their minds due to cabin fever. This is most apparent with Cliff Beasts newcomer Dieter Bravo (Pedro Pascal), who the film characterizes as “guy who craves human contact; especially sex”. However, instead of making it a one-off joke, it’s a running gag that loses steam long before it ends.
In broadening its narrative horizon, The Bubble commits the worst sin a satire can make: it has no idea what it wants to address. From the opening scene, one could say it wants to poke fun at how spoiled A-list actors can be. And considering how much time Apatow devotes to actors whining in a fancy hotel, I would argue it succeeds. Unfortunately, the second half switches gears to explore producers mismanaging things… from the actors’ perspective, no less! I suppose this is an attempt to show that everyone has the capability of doing wrong. Still, what good is that when the shift invalidates almost every comedic bit preceding it? Because of that, we have a movie that wants you to root for and against its main characters equally.
It’s so confused about what to say about the modern film industry that it even fumbles simpler things like generational gaps. In a more constructed satire, there would be extended jokes about how a TikTok star managed to score a key role in a big blockbuster. Maybe it’s due to the producers trying to appeal to younger audiences, maybe it’s just luck. Whatever the case, it’s a lot more than what this movie does with social media lifer Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow). Honestly, the fact that Krystal had to be played by an Apatow and not a real TikTok star is damning all in itself.
Without question, the most unfortunate scenes are the video calls with studio head Paula (Kate McKinnon). It’s one thing for those scenes to have useless namedrops of celebrities and strained comedic lines. It’s another for those video calls to look so uncanny. If Apatow wanted to show people using custom backgrounds on Zoom, he failed because the effect is too perfect. If Apatow wanted to convince viewers that McKinnon really shot her scenes on a beach, he failed because the lighting is inaccurate. This could have been another opportunity to comment on current working conditions. As it stands, the intent is too fuzzy for it to have an impact.
The end result is a film that doesn’t do right by anything or anyone. Despite a talented ensemble, the actors don’t have enough chances to elevate the material. I never thought I would say that for an Apatow project, but The Bubble is very much a story that plays to all of his weaknesses and none of his strengths. To say that movies about the pandemic should come to an end is certainly close-minded. But between this, Locked Down, and Songbird, it’s not like they are making a good case for themselves. – Mark Tan
The Bubble is now streaming on Netflix.
The film stars Karen Gillan, Iris Apatow, Pedro Pascal, Leslie Mann, David Duchovny, Keegan-Michael Key, Peter Serafinowicz, and Fred Armisen.