Judd Apatow’s “The Bubble,” Reviewed: A Shapeless Comedy with a Molten Emotional Core

Judd Apatow is a modernist filmmaker. His style is simple and distinctive: he puts the camera in place and lets it run until the actors yield the scene’s substance. When that substance is rooted in his experience, as it is in his best films—“Funny People,” “This Is 40,” and “Knocked Up”—the style hums and roars with comedic intensity bordering on melodrama. When that personal connection doesn’t exist, his style more or less falls apart and he becomes a simple professional director. His new film, “The Bubble,” which is on Netflix, is divided against itself. The story and the characters are generic abstractions whose mercy flimsy presence summons the pro who’s at the relatively uninspired material. Yet its themes and ideas often feel observed and deeply felt, and they occupy a separate plane—there’s the movie, and there’s what the movie’s getting at, and their points of contact are merely functional. Accordingly, “The Bubble” (which Apatow co-wrote with Pam Brady) is a sort of good bad movie, in which the aesthetic falls flat but the personal motive, the emotional core, is authentic, pugnacious, derisive.

The movie’s subject is the vanity and frivolity, the self-justifying self-importance and the cavalier power-madness, of the movie business. It’s set in a palatial hotel in rural England, where a cast and crew are embarking on a hundred-million-dollar film shoot, in the anti-COVID bubble of the title. The project is a fantasy-action sequel, the sixth film in the “Cliff Beasts” series, which—like many big-budget franchise films—is helmed by a relative newcomer, the hot indie director Darren Eigen (Fred Armisen), who made his Sundance-winning film on his cell phone while working at Home Depot, and whose head is swollen with the fame and wealth that followed his breakthrough. The cast includes a pair of stars, Lauren (Leslie Mann) and Dustin (David Duchovny), who are newly divorced from each other; Sean (Keegan-Michael Key), an action star who has launched his own New Age quasi-religion; the pompous, sex-crazed Dieter (Pedro Pascal), who brazenly propositions the desk clerk Anika (Maria Bakalova); Carol (Karen Gillan), whose career has tanked and who is desperate for a comeback; Krystal (Iris Apatow), an eighteen-year-old social-media influencer with a hundred and twenty million followers and no acting experience; and the bitter comedic foil Howie (Guz Khan). The centrifugal group of out-of-control personalities is held together by the force of the studio handlers Gunther (Harry Trevaldwyn) and Bola (Samson Kayo), who apply with a velvet glove the iron hand of the studio minder Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz) —who, in turn, is pressured on video calls by the studio executive Paula (Kate McKinnon), who keeps in touch from the many lavish locations where she’s vacationing.

Much of the comedy is stretched on the grid of power and hypocrisy. Dustin tries to reanimate his relationship with Lauren in order to gain her support in his rewrite of the script. Carol’s agent (Rob Delaney) betrays her with high-handed indifference. What passes for ordinary conversation among the actors is a sludge of relentless hype and backhanded digs. Paula, skiing among the rich and vaccinated six months before the vaccine is available to the public, says, “This lockdown has been so hard on all of us.” The hustle is universal, whether it’s an extra peddling a script or a hotel staffer (Vir Das) promoting his brother’s VR “sex glove.” The shoot is chaotic: actors don’t respect the bubble; the minders enforce it incompetently; and, when one actor escapes from the “shit show,” a new, stone-cold killer of a security boss, Mr. Best (Ross Lee), arrives to paste sensors on the actors’ bodies, surround the hotel with a laser grid of surveillance, and post armed guards.

The center of the movie is the production itself—the physical and emotional effects of the specific filming of a disposable fantasy and, over all, the mind-bending emptiness that a Hollywood-blockbuster production inflicts on its participants. Carol has to work her way back into her castmates’ good graces because she bailed on the fifth installment in order to star in the socially significant “Jerusalem Rising,” in which she portrayed a half-Israeli, half-Palestinian character when she’s neither. (She was widely derided for it, along with the film—four per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.) The numbing banality of the “Cliff Beasts” franchise leads Dustin to rewrite the script to emphasize its “pro-environmental message” while also juicing his own character’s lines. Dieter has no illusions. He considers his movies “shit,” and his approach is: “You just wipe, you flush, and you move on.” Darren may be a fool, and he’s definitely out of his league, but his blithering salesmanship seems aimed primarily at himself—he’s attempting to convince himself that what he’s doing is worth doing at all.

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Almost all of the movie’s best scenes take place on the set, where the cast performs in front of green screens on which décor will be digitally painted in, on treadmills to simulate running outdoors, and dangling from wires to simulate climbing and flying. (Cleverly, Apatow starts the on-set action with a view of how the scene in production will look with the CGI added, and only then reveals the alienating strangeness of the bare, technical set. When an actress is incapacitated, she’s replaced on the shoot by an extra, whose green mask enables the actress’s face to be digitally pasted in.) The vain and flailing struggle to make films of social significance is part and parcel of the self-aware emptiness, the deliberate condescension, of most movies that make actors and directors rich and famous.

The actors are professionals, after all, and they pull off the fakery with a conflicted pride. (“I turn shit into gold,” Dustin boasts.) The physical trickery of blockbuster filmmaking, in Apatow’s view, is inseparable from emotional trickery; The unreality of the production is inextricable from the unreality of the actors’ and directors’ investment in it. What’s more, the production of the “Cliff Beasts” films and others like them costs absurd amounts of money and brings absurd payouts, too, which adds another layer of unreality to the proceedings. Paula warns Gavin that he may be held responsible for the collapse of a fifty-billion-dollar corporation; Carol risks being sued for a hundred million dollars; and Bola, leading a mindfulness workshop, tells the cast, “Release the fear of the movie industry collapsing, leaving you penniless.” The emotional fakery pervades the entire production, even during downtime. In the movie’s sharpest scene, Paula ostensibly rewards the cast with a live video performance by Beck that sends the actors into a giddy vortex of bewilderment. (It’s exemplary of the film’s shortcomings that this acutely conceived scene has no ending, but merely cuts out.)

“The Bubble” is crammed with furious, scattershot derision that’s sharply pointed in the concept and in the punchline. (Dustin mockingly calls the self-inflated Darren “Cimino.”) But the drama is a kind of sketch assemblage, in which the main thrust isn’t an arc or a plot mechanism but a tone of rage and scorn. As a result, it’s a movie better recalled than watched, better considered than experienced. It’s an omnium-gatherum of details in which the humor is as forced as the plotlines— the disgorging of fury is authentic but nonetheless remains somewhat distanced and hypothetical. The movie itself lacks a central consciousness: there’s no Apatovian character in the mix, no insider who has successfully walked the tightrope of business and art and succeeded at both while feeling it fray beneath his or her feet amid the dominance of Marvel and Disney—and of Netflix, where the movie is playing.

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