2022 | rated R | starring Karen Gillian, David Duchovny, Leslie Mann, Iris Apatow, Pedro Pascal, Keegan-Michael Key, Gus Khan, Fred Armisen, Kate McKinnon, Maria Bakalova | directed by Judd Apatow | 2 hrs 6 mins |
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, a movie studio sends a group of actors, crew and a director to a posh mansion in the English countryside to film the 6th installment of the Cliff Beats franchise. When quarantines, nasal swabs, reshoots and re-writes start to take their toll on the actors, Carol (Karen Gillian) attempts a revolt, Mulray (David Duchovny) attempts a re-write and Lauren (Leslie Mann) tries to escape, forcing director Darren Elgen (Fred Armisen) to resort to drastic security measures to keep the cast and finish the movie.
The Bubble is a special kind of obnoxious. It’s a bad movie, it’s deeply unfunny and a time suck, but it’s also tone-deaf and oblivious to how badly it comes off in a spectacular way. Directed by Judd Apatow (featuring all of his worst impulses on full display) and co-written by Apatow and Pam Brady (who once upon a time wrote for South Park) as an attempt to satirize the Covid conditions during the production of Jurassic World: Dominion, it’s clear that Apatow is way to close to this thing to properly do a Hollywood satire justice. We’ll get to all that in a second, but up top, let’s just acknowledge the mushroom cloud of elitism that wafts off this movie. Actors being subjected to the same Covid protocols that normal people have to follow – gasp! When Apatow set this insta-script into rapid-production he probably didn’t know that it would be a few months later that actors would be seen attending parties and award shows without masks while their servants were forced to scurry around them with masks on in a Hunger Games-level show of aristocratic elitism. But that’s to the point of the rest of this review – if he really had his finger on the pulse of the potential satire here, he would have been able to predict that.
Like all Judd Apatow films, Bubble is over-cast with celebrities and cameos, it’s overly long and loosely edited, allowing scenes to wander around endlessly searching for a punch line and then peter out, and overly reliant on improv from actors who aren’t (mostly) comedians. It’s not often that Karen Gillian gets a non-romantic lead role, so that is the highlight of The Bubble. Gillian works with the material admirably, but what Apatow has given her is cringe dialog, an embarrassing love life and TikTok dances (literally). So little works here that it’s better to describe the radical overhaul that would have to happen to make it work. This should be a tightly edited comedy, barely topping 90 minutes ruthlessly mocking actors who overinflate their own ability to bring entertainment in real world situations – an upside down Sullivan’s Travels if you will. The actors should be taken out one by one by Covid, accident or escape like a horror movie (an idea this movie teases but doesn’t follow through on), the movie should have stakes, why does each actor need this to be a hit (we get why Carol does, but nobody else) and the movie they are making should be bad in a way that actually parodies bad Hollywood movies. And that’s where we’re touching on next.
From it’s studio boss (Kate McKinnon) calling in via video phone to threaten the film production to the hapless director to the musical act-turned-actor to the dance numbers to the meta film-about-the-film ending – beat by beat – The Bubble feels like a sloggish attempt by Apatow to reverse engineer Tropic Thunder.
Since it’s release Ben Stiller’s serrated Hollywood satire has aged like fine wine in oak barrels, becoming the modern gold standard for how to make this type of movie. Part of the reason that movie works so well is that Stiller (and Tom Cruise) were slightly on the outs at the time. Your lazy Hollywood satire – this movie – perpetuates the image of the ruthless cutthroat business where millions are on the line, that you can be out of their good graces like that (snap) and people are scheming and backstabbing to get in. This is the image they want to project. Tropic Thunder on the other hand, goes after things about the movie industry that people in the movie industry like. Things that they think are working. Thunder – as well as satires like The Player and Team America: World Police – turn that self-aggrandizing high-stakes image on it’s head and go after the idea that these people, far from being the most important job in the world, are actually kind of worthless. Apatow treats the industry with kid gloves here, lightly tapping it on the shoulder with committee-approved jokes and apologizing profusely afterward.
Finally, lets get into Cliff Beasts. Even the fake movie inside the movie doesn’t work here. Cliff Beasts hits on a feeling I’ve had for a while and am now forced to articulate. For context, Cliff Beasts is supposedly a movie about winged dinosaurs with giant flammable penises with a scene where Iris Apatow’s character teaches a velociraptor how to dance. Putting aside that, if it’s supposed to be a parody of Jurassic Park, it is unrecognizably off the mark. There is something deeply cynical, almost manipulative about Apatow’s depiction of a bad movie here. I’m going to coin a term for it: a “Straw Movie”.
As you probably know the “Straw Man” is a debate tactic where a debater frames the opponents argument in a ludicrous and easily refuted way and then knocks down the simple and inaccurate caricature of the argument they created themselves. Very often it seems like when a movie shows us a “bad movie” what it’s showing us is so bad, so ludicrous and so over the top that there is nobody who would see it as good. But these parody movies don’t actually address people’s real world complaints about movies. Your average person’s criticisms of movies is way more nuanced than bad movies in movies make them appear. They’ve simply constructed a fake one, that is objectively stupid, knocked it over and avoided any harder discussion of why the movies they make can go so badly. This is a subject changing diversion. Cliff Beasts is a Straw Movie. Either Apatow is really this far inside the business he can’t see light or this is a manipulation tactic designed to make real bad movies look good in comparison to fake bad movies.
It’s too bad. I’ve been waiting to see Karen Gillian get a lead role and flex some comic muscles. She gets let down by Apatow here. The Bubble is one of the worst movies of the year. A self-indulgent, cynical, condescending, and deeply, deeply unfunny. I’d rather watch any Jurassic World sequel then this again.