Judd Apatow’s Netflix action-comedy The Bubble is the film no one wanted about the COVID-19 pandemic: It’s instantly dated, frustratingly oblivious, and painfully unfunny. In an ostensible attempt to lampoon a pandemic-era film set, Apatow and co-writer Pam Brady grab their flashlights and go on an epic adventure up the colons of spoiled movie stars who treat 14 days in a luxury hotel suite like their personal 9/11.
The Bubble was reportedly inspired by the production of Jurassic World: Dominion, which filmed last year in the UK under strict COVID protocols. But aside from occasional cracks from the supporting cast — as underappreciated here as their characters are in the movie —The Bubble fails to really grasp the absurdity of a studio building an elaborate multi-million-dollar infrastructure so rich people don’t have to wear masks on set. Instead, Apatow and Brady take a “These times are hard on everybody” approach, naïvely expecting people quarantining in studio apartments to sympathize with celebrities who have live-in wellness consultants and massive manicured gardens where they could absolutely go out and get some fresh air if they wanted to. In short, it’s the “Imagine” video of movies.
Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan stars as Carol Cobb, a B-plus-list star whose last film, Jerusalem Rising, bombed thanks to vicious reviews criticizing the extremely Caucasian Cobb’s portrayal of a half-Israeli, half-Palestinian woman. (According to The Bubble, the problem was of course the critics, not the casting.) And so Cobb’s agent pressures her to return to the Jurassic Park-esque Cliff Beasts franchise, which she abandoned in part five. Reluctantly, Cobb agrees to sign on for the sixth installment.
And so she’s off to a posh countryside resort in the UK, where after 14 days of quarantine, she reunites with co-stars Lauren Van Chance (Leslie Mann), Dustin Mulray (David Duchovny), Sean Knox (Keegan-Michael Key), and Howie Frangopolous (Guz Khan). They’re joined by new cast members Dieter Bravo (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal), an Oscar winner slumming it in tentpole moviemaking, and Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow), a TikTok star who isn’t sure why she’s there, either. Some of these characters have real-world parallels, particularly Van Chance and Mulray, who are clearly modeled after Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum. Others represent more generic blockbuster types: the tough-talking soldier, the vaguely foreign scientist, the comic relief.
But even bits that should be funny, like Pascal’s character’s ever-evolving accent in the film-within-a-film, land with a splat. The Bubble is composed mainly of long, excruciating sequences where everyone is trying very hard and producing zero laughs, like people trying to start a fire by rubbing two wet sticks together. At times, it’s difficult to discern exactly what the joke was supposed to be: Someone is making a face, which means a punchline must have been delivered. But what was the joke? It’s like watching a comedy whose humor depends on the nuances of an unfamiliar culture, except the language being spoken here is Hollywood navel-gazing.
There’s also a culture clash between sardonic British humor and broad American comedy. This is a movie that has both Peter Serafinowicz delivering withering bon mots
and Pedro Pascal doing sophomoric shit humor. Pascal’s character in The Bubble is a serial seducer and a committed psychonaut. But for filmmakers who pack this much sex and drugs into their movie, Apatow and Brady treat both with arm’s-length fridigity. The sex is of the bra-on, herky-jerky variety. And the drugs? The Bubble’s depiction of a hallucinogenic trip is about as realistic as a ‘90s D.A.R.E. video, as Pascal climbs inside the smart mirror in his hotel suite and imagines he’s transformed into Benedict Cumberbatch. All of which goes along with the way Apatow and Brady don’t seem to have much experience talking to people who’d be fine staying in a fancy hotel for six months, especially if they got a million-dollar payday at the end of that stay.
Ironically, the only bits in The Bubble that are somewhat amusing come from the Cliff Beasts 6 script, which multiple characters describe as absolutely terrible. (If the “bad” jokes are the only funny ones, what does that say about the “good” ones?) The film’s best gag comes when Kris leads a CGI dinosaur in a TikTok dance, a nod to Hollywood’s desperate attempts to keep up with a generation that doesn’t really care about Hollywood. By contrast, the digs at the film’s director, Sundance darling Darren Eigan (Fred Armisen), are curiously mean-spirited, given that multiple Apatow-produced projects have launched at that particular festival.
The Bubble’s myopic point of view is summed up in the character of Carla (Galen Hopper), a teenage girl who explains her presence in the film as “My dad’s the stunt coordinator.” (Her father, played by John Cena, never actually shows up in person, appearing only on an iPad screen.) No other crew members penetrate the actors’ bubble, aside from Armisen’s Eigan and Serafinowicz’s harried producer Gavin. It’s as though the rest of the crew doesn’t exist at all, apart from in an isolated bit where they’re told they must remain masked at all times, and cannot touch the talent. An opportunity to skewer how COVID has deepened class-based on-set divides, perhaps? Of course not: It’s a strained gag about people flirting with their eyes.
The Bubble’s supporting cast is outstanding, counting Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Maria Bakalova and Our Flag Means Death’s Samson Kayo among the characters who work at the hotel where the Cliff Beasts 6 cast is “bubbling.” (The term is indeed used as a verb throughout.) The minor players all try their best with their limited roles. But it says a lot that the only clear-eyed counterpoint to the Cliff Beasts 6 cast’s apparently life-threatening cabin fever comes from “the help.”
Iris Apatow’s character brings some perspective to the story as well. She’s the most level-headed of the core cast, a regular girl from Indiana whose most Hollywood trait is her pushy stage mom, played by Maria Bamford via Zoom. (Brady created Bamford’s critically beloved, short-lived Netflix series Lady Dynamite, which makes this film’s script all the more puzzling.) Kris’ relatability doesn’t make the three full-length TikTok dance sequences in The Bubble pass by any more quickly, to be clear. But at least Apatow’s love for his daughter brings a certain affection to the way the film treats the character, which balances out any “old man yells at cloud” humor about kids these days and their phones.
Apatow’s casting of his family used to be one of the more aggravating parts of films like This Is 40 and Funny People, which tipped over from autobiography to self-indulgence. The fact that his daughter’s role is the freshest part of The Bubble shows just how stale this movie’s writing, performances, and perspective really are. There might well be humor to be mined from the self-absorbed foibles of the rich and famous during a deadly pandemic. But for this film to speak to anyone who might have undergone any actual hardship during the past two years, its humor would have to take a much wider — and more self-effacing — view than The Bubble. This is what happens when someone stays in their own bubble for far too long.
The Bubble is now streaming on Netflix.