Judd Apatow’s attempt at Hollywood satire offers his worst outing as a director
“Is it still too early to be joking about this?” For many, that is likely the first question that will come to mind when they hear the premise of The Bubble. Directed and co-written by Judd Apatow, the new comedy is set within not just the COVID-19 pandemic, but very specifically in the early months of the pandemic, when it was uncertain what reality and life could look like. Thus it it easy to assume that the film, which uses its setting as a source for jokes, could be seen as making light of that tense and unpredictable time.
But for better or worse, The Bubble isn’t overly concerned with investigating the pandemic as a phenomenon, and rarely uses it as a source for historical or ironic humor. Rather, it is much more interested in investigating and satirizing the state of Hollywood filmmaking, and how the early days of COVID underlined and exposed specific problems with the current Hollywood system. To this end, the Bubble has a lot to say, and some of it seemingly very personal for Apatow. Unfortunately, the personal nature of the story leads to it being weighed down by having a lot to unpack but no central narrative to connect it all. The end result is a mean spirited mess, and constitutes easily Apatow’s worst film in his career.
The titular bubble refers to the circumstances for which the sixth entry in a mid-tier action franchise, Cliff Beasts, is being shot: all actors and crew members forced to live on an isolated London film set to avoid any potential outbreak of the “virus” (coronavirus and COVID-19 are never mentioned by name.) This includes the expansive cast of actors, most who are Cliff Beasts veterans, who are themselves played by an impressive ensemble. Chief among them is Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan) who skipped the previous entry in an attempt at legitimacy, only for her attempt to bomb, forcing her to eat crow and return. She is balanced being sympathetic but also casually self-obsessed and concerned about how the film shoot will ultimately affect her. She argues over both working conditions, but also being frustrated with losing lines and prominence in a movie she actively thinks is both poor and harming people. She is pulled between being clear-eyed, but also desperate to save her career.
Carol is the closest The Bubble has to an interesting character and perspective, but she is also under-served by the overall story. If this was Carol’s story, there might be a salvageable story to tell. But she is the biggest fish in a busy pond, and not even that much bigger. But by comparison, everyone else in the cast are easily readable Hollywood stereotypes. Keegan Michael-Key is a image-conscience movie star who dabbles in spiritual wellness gurudom; Leslie Mann and David Duchovny play an on-again, off-again couple who see themselves as the heart of the franchise, and ignoring their recently adopted teenage son; Pedro Pascal plays an Oscar-winner, slumming it to help cope with his drug and sex addiction; and Iris Apatow plays a Tik-Tok influencer, the newcomer to the cast who is brought on to appeal to younger viewers.
And even past on the cast of Cliff Beasts are important fixtures for the larger narrative. Most successful there is Fred Armisen as the director, a Sundance darling whose next film is a multi-millionaire dollar franchise picture. This is probably where the movie feels most specific and targeted, as the production side lingers on larger decisions that are made for capitalistic gains first, artistic merit later, which in turns eats everyone up the same.
All of the above characters are played as very broad sketches of their actor types, either seeming to be doing riffs on their own public personas or just playing to the stereotype as expected. It is all the more frustrating because the point that Apatow is pitching towards is worth exploring. But his method of exploring those conceits is through uninteresting, ugly and shallow representations of Hollywood elites, with the end result being a sort of take-no-prisoners skewering of the whole system. It is easy to sympathize with Apatow’s frustrations, seeing how more and more blockbusters by committee push high profile comedies like his out of the marketplace, but his method of venting rings hollow and vindictive. And at over two hours of venting, the tone goes from unpleasant to oppressive to eventually a slog to get through.
Which is a shame, because Apatow’s strength as a writer and director has always been in telling inherently human stories. Even his darkest and most critical film before this, the fantastic Funny People, still felt a great affection for its lead while also depicting him doing deeply selfish things. But here, he simply seems to be aiming at fish in a barrel (or a bubble, as the case may be) and has little regard for any sort of nuance. By targeting systems, rather than truly attempting to depict individuals or even an especially strong sense of narrative flow, the film never quite finds its heart.
This is not helped by plotting that can be described best as meandering. Plot points show up, seeming to create potential for conflict, only to be resolved 20 minutes later. At one point Carol strikes up an sexual relationship with a soccer player despite her active if rocky marriage, only to learn that he is actually also married, and isn’t looking for any romantic entanglement. This revelation leads her to attempt to escape the bubble, only to be thwarted by security, and thus she heads back. The end result? Not much, which is really the impact of most of the story beats up until the overlong climatic finale.
In general, the film is overlong and aimless, providing sometimes amusing concepts for comedic beats that last several minutes past their expiration, and rarely lead to anything resembling character growth. Because for characters to grow, they’d have to have a perspective to begin with, again a position that Apatow seems almost stubbornly committed against. For every genuine laugh, there is an extension that suggests something funny but doesn’t quite deliver. Perhaps on a morbid level, that is the most effective aspect of The Bubble. For long stretches, watching it makes you feel trapped.