The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on everyone, including Judd Apatow. Among the many casualties was his latest film, ‘The King of Staten Island,’ which was supposed to open the SXSW film festival but had to cancel after America went into lockdown. Faced with such challenges, creatives create. Some made bread. Others let their beards grow. Judd Apatow made a movie. A very bad movie. In “The Bubble,” which isn’t even the worst thing to cast on Netflix, a crew of insufferable Hollywood actors quarantine themselves on the set of a massively disorganized franchise movie and keep driving each other crazy. But hey, what did you do during COVID?
During her opening monologue at the Oscars, co-host Amy Schumer (star of Apatow’s much better “Trainwreck” in 2015) took a moment to congratulate the audience. “During a raging pandemic, you made a movie. Give yourself a hand,” she said. “And yet, they weren’t all great. … You know who you are.” For every “Borat,” there seem to be a dozen like “The Bubble.” , about the pandemic have almost all been awful. Still too soon? That wasn’t the issue. COVID is now part of everyday life, and it’s only fitting that movies acknowledge that.
At first, people desperately needed a distraction, and Netflix was the logical place for Apatow to give them one, since audiences turned to streaming when theaters were dark. If “The Bubble” had come out a year earlier, back when we were all still relatively isolated and looking for something to make us laugh, it might have seemed like as welcome a fix as the AstraZeneca vaccine (and far less likely to cause blood clots). But “The Bubble” came late, and many of the jokes mostly serve to remind people how irritating and sometimes illogical certain protocols were. Even the bubbles turned out to be fallible – the idea made sense in theory, but was only as secure as its weakest link – with many of them suddenly contracting COVID when someone broke the pact for selfish reasons (like fucking a Spanish soccer player, “quarantining” in the same hotel).
Apatow rounded up a very funny group of people – his wife Leslie Mann, his daughter Iris Apatow, Emmy winner Keegan-Michael Key, Oscar nominee Maria Bakalova, David Duchovny, Fred Armisen and more – and brought them to life. chosen as the crew that comes together to make a generic flying dinosaur sequel, “Cliff Beasts 6”. Like a cross between the latest “Jurassic World” and “Resident Evil” movies (both of which were made under COVID safe conditions), this free-to-play sequel to a mostly green-screen franchise serves as Apatow’s chance to skewer the kind of brainless, adult-focused vfx studio films that have made adult comedies an endangered species. It’s his “Tonnerre Tropique”, with more inside jokes and far less for the general public to recognize or identify with.
After skipping the previous film “Cliff Beasts” to make a derided critical film, “Jerusalem Rising 2,” actor Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan) reluctantly agrees to leave her boyfriend for three months and fly away for England, where the set – a quarrelsome and somewhat incestuous surrogate family who have been together for more than five installments – agreed to self-isolate for two weeks before what is supposed to be a three-month shoot. Kate McKinnon introduces herself as a studio executive who occasionally connects via video chat from distant vacation spots. Otherwise, it’s up to producer Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz) and a pair of COVID compliance officers to guard this unruly group, played by Samson Kayo and Harry Trevaldwyn (there’s at least one escape in every Apatow movie, and this impressionist Instagram almost steals “The bubble”).
Among the stars of the “Cliff Beasts”, some have a past. Lauren (Mann) and Dustin (Duchovny) just filed for divorce, but chemistry is still bubbling between them, while vaguely Will Smith-like Sean (Key) just released a bestseller that may or may not be base of a cult – a fun idea that doesn’t really go anywhere. Others are new to the mix, meant to reflect recent trends in Hollywood casting. There’s Oscar-winning Dieter (Pedro Pascal), who spends much of his time getting high or helping out, and Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow), a hugely popular TikTok star whose dance segments are more fun than the rest of the film combined.
Apatow wants “The Bubble” to be a sort of “Tropic Thunder” green screen, sampling large chunks of “Sharknado” level shlock already cut and rendered, then cutting to actors running on treadmills or hanging from wires to laugh, like that’s how these movies are made. Truth be told, there’s hardly a more boring place on earth than a film set, where people spend most of their time waiting and scenes repeat over and over. But no one wants to see that, which is why Apatow chose to make the 16th-biggest action franchise look like some kind of amateur goof, pulled off by a barely competent Sundance winner way out of his league (Armisen , about a quarter of a century too old to be the next Jon Watts or Colin Trevorrow).
Dustin steps in and tries to rewrite the script, while the rest of the cast tries to have fun in their down time. Then, a PA tests positive for COVID, and Apatow points out another montage of high-maintenance actors going crazy. Every once in a while something funny happens, but it all seems like an endless “Saturday Night Live” skit. Apatow said he built the film expecting audiences to pause and pause throughout, but he gives them no reason to continue. There are a few outrageous bits, one involving a sniper hired to stop the cast from leaving and another that had the team at Industrial Light and Magic render R-rated dino-bits usually sterilized by compared to other projects.
When this chaotic business falls apart in production, Scott (Nick Kocher), the “EPK guy” in charge of shooting behind-the-scenes footage, ends up releasing a teardown documentary instead. It seems like that would have been the right way to frame ‘The Bubble’ – not as a semi-improvised scripted comedy, but rather as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary that slots in between the outrageously unprofessional behavior that occurs on the spot and talking – headshots of the actors trying to limit the damage after the fact. That format seems a bit outdated these days, but so do most “The Bubble” jokes.