In equal measure, the film industry loves to both pay tribute to itself and poke sarcastic fun at its own hypocrisies. For every movie like The Artist and La La Land that gives into the warm and fuzzy romanticism of the artform, there’s a Bowfinger or State And Main that counters with sharp, cynical satire. These films pop up on the radar here and there, and co-writer/director Judd Apatow’s big Netflix debut, The Bubble, takes aim at blockbuster filmmaking in the age of COVID. While it starts as a high-energy snark fest that chooses its targets carefully, by time the finale plays out, this scattershot dino-snore craters like a comet.
The Bubble features a diverse assortment of characters that are united by one common goal: to continue the blockbuster series of Cliff Beasts films, now shooting its sixth chapter, titled The Battle for Everest: Memories of a Requiem. A fictional saga that’s as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s also the project that welcomes back cast member Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan). Seeing as she sat out Cliff Beasts 5: Space Fury in the name of making another, more ill-advised film, Carol’s return is already a dicey prospect among the ensemble.
Making matters worse is the fact that this fifth sequel is being made during the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these details, minus the previously absent lead, firmly set Judd Apatow’s sights on lampooning the Jurassic World franchise as his centerpiece. With a cast that includes David Duchovny, Keegan-Michael Key, and Pedro Pascal, as well as Apatow veterans/family members Leslie Mann and Iris Apatow, there are a lot of ingredients that could have made The Bubble work. Yet somehow, it doesn’t.
The Bubble may be Judd Apatow’s most mainstream comedy, which helps give the film a promising start.
When you typically think about Judd Apatow’s style of comedy, The Bubble isn’t the first sort of movie you’d think of. With his resume consisting mostly of improv-friendly comedies dealing with more personal stakes, like The 40-Year Old Virgin, Funny People, or even the more dramatic The King of Staten Island, the focus of a traditional Apatow movie is typically more limited.
Expanding his thematic horizons with co-writer and South Park vet Pam Brady, Judd Apatow takes a huge leap in storytelling with The Bubble, resulting in what’s probably his most mainstream comedy film. Though we do see into the intimate lives of our extensive cast, the story about completing the latest Cliff Beasts movie has Apatow playing in a much bigger sandbox. Tackling an ensemble farce is actually what helps the earlier acts of this story play to a promising start.
The Bubble foregoes the discovery of new fresh comedic stars as seen in his past films with Ken Jeong and LeBron James, but the cast is stoked with a bunch of faces you should definitely recognize – which is both good and bad.
An insanely stacked cast of talent helps this satire land more hits than misses, but it’s not enough to patch up a thin final act.
The characters in The Bubble set up the playing field for what could have been an exciting and acerbic poke at big budget movies. Figures like Sean Knox (Keegan-Michael Key) stand in for religious action heroes who like to push things to the edge, while the story of Lauren Van Chance (Leslie Mann) and Dustin Mulray (David Duchovny) explores Hollywood power couples that can’t seem to stay separated. There’s even Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow), an influencer who was cast to make sure the TikTok generation is catered to.
It’s easy to guess quite a few of the messages The Bubble tries to impart as it adds to its menagerie of spinning plates. Not all of the antics on display work, as everything’s kind of thrown into a grab bag of concepts, loosely hung on a story about making a movie. Both the ensemble and the story have way too many moving parts to bring everything to a satisfying conclusion, and while the movie has laughs, it also gets in its own way.
For example, there’s a subplot where actor Dieter Bravo (Pedro Pascal) seems to have touched off an inadvertent love triangle between himself and two members of the hotel staff (Maria Bakalova and Vir Das). Realistically, you’d expect Bakalova and Das’ characters to get into escalating situations where they’re trying to win Pascal’s affection, amping up the ridiculousness along the way. After one scene of that sort of interplay, however, The Bubble drops that gag almost entirely, leaving the audience wanting more – especially given that Pascal delivers a comedically adept performance.
For a little while, it feels like the movie might even be building to the usual over-the-top climax that you’d expect in a farcical comedy, with all of the disparate plot threads weaving together as tensions build toward explosion. Were this story to have had even half an ounce of that energy in its final act, more of The Bubble’s missteps could have been forgiven. That doesn’t pan out, though, as while everyone gets to have their moments of glory, they don’t really mean that much in the subpar finale.
With too many characters and subplots being juggled, The Bubble bursts as one movie trying to take on a series’ worth of ideas.
In the past, Judd Apatow has been criticized for the length of his films. Recent years have seen him staying closer to the two-hour mark, and The Bubble continues that tradition. Editing seems to have an evolved importance in the modern age of Apatow. The downside in the case of his Netflix feature is the shears seem to have trimmed bits here and there that were important to the story. Around the hour-and-a-half mark, the entire enterprise starts to drag, leaving the rest of the movie feeling like a tedious chore to get through.
During the depicted extended shoot from hell, the patience of the characters wears thin and causes them to do desperate things to escape The Bubble’s maddening hellscape. Rather than amp up the audience with these energetic attempts at fleeing to freedom, the film loses its way with each ridiculous attempt. By the end, our characters just want to go home, despite all signs pointing to that not happening anytime soon. I couldn’t help but identify with their plight, and I was watching this movie in my own living room.
Trying to be meta but not having the conviction to stick the landing, The Bubble even calls itself out for not having a proper ending – having its characters level that complaint against the movie within. What was once full of madcap zest and promise becomes another finished product that just can just barely call itself that. Not even the impressive all-star cameos strewn throughout can make enough of an impact to save it, as those are also examples of good ideas that aren’t followed through with logical punchlines.
While The Bubble strives to be a movie that can take a bite out of Hollywood’s ego surrounding blockbusters and “the new normal,” it bursts under the weight of ideas it’s trying to carry. A limited series-worth of jokes and plotlines are distilled into a single film, which starts going somewhere fast only to hit a brick wall on the way to the finish line.