Judd Apatow’s latest film, COVID-era comedy The Bubble, already feels like a time capsule of a hyper-specific moment in pandemic life. Following the cast of a long-running action franchise that must exist in an on-set “bubble” to reduce risk of COVID-19 exposure, it chronicles the flaws intrinsic to making a piece of Hollywood fluff while a global pandemic still rages. Yet, The Bubble plays into the very phenomenon it’s supposed to be critiquing, itself as vacuous and unnecessary as the flying dinosaur franchise installment it depicts. Overlong and lacking the requisite humor to sustain its meandering runtime, what should have been a low-stakes ensemble comedy is instead a laborious bore. Plagued once again by Apatow’s enduring tendency toward nepotism, a high-profile cast rife with comedic talent is overshadowed by the director’s own flesh and blood.
After having temporarily left the fictitious Cliff Beasts franchise during its fifth film installment, actress Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan) is roped back into the subsequent sixth film, promised to be “pampered” during her mandatory 14-day quarantine ahead of entering the on-set “bubble” that’s supposedly impervious to the pandemic. When she emerges from isolation, she rejoins the ranks of the cast members she “abandoned.” One of the first to greet Carol back on set is Lauren (Leslie Mann), who at first seems resentful over her not sticking with the rest of the cast through Cliff Beasts 5, but is easily disarmed by a lukewarm apology. Carol then links up with the other established Cliff Beasts actors: Dustin (David Duchovny), Dieter (Pedro Pascal), Sean (Keegan-Michael Key) and Howie (Guz Khan). Rounding out the cast is TikTok dancer Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow) in her first movie appearance, meant to draw fresh viewership to an exhausted franchise. The actors are joined by director Darren Eigan (Fred Armisen), who previously “won Sundance” but is looking to upgrade to more lucrative projects. There are also a few customer service employees who play a prominent role, namely Maria Bakalova as Anika, the hotel concierge who catches a specific actor’s eye.
While The Bubble’s cast proves promising—even featuring real-life franchise veterans Gillan (Avengers) and Pascal (Star Wars), surely meant to infuse the story with their own musings on making franchise content during the pandemic—these characters are underdeveloped and underutilized. While the film is overwhelmingly unfocused in its dual-movie plot, an unwarranted amount of attention is cast upon Krystal (played by Apatow and Mann’s youngest daughter), who even gets two extended TikTok dance sequences during The Bubble’s bloated 126 minutes.
While Apatow has long cast his wife and daughters in his films, Iris’ role nearly plays into the very trend Apatow feigns to critique. She feels shoehorned into the film to make an empty statement about casting solely based on social currency, while she herself benefits from nepotism. Krystal dominates much of the film’s half-baked narrative, while exciting rising talent is needlessly relegated to the sideline. This is particularly true of Bakalova, whose shallow role is steeped in regressive misogyny, especially offensive considering how successfully this exact trope was lampooned in the Borat sequel that served as her breakout. When casting a well-connected actress alongside truly exciting new talent, it feels incredibly lazy to typecast Bakalova and then not even attempt to engage with the caricature that was created for her. Fred Armisen’s insufferable sell-out is perhaps the most well-cast and appropriately platformed, even if it’s a bare-minimum performance from the comedy veteran. Yet, it’s totally understandable for Armisen to have phoned it in a bit here in exchange for landing some of the only successful jokes in the film—specifically as they pertain to the cinematic trajectory of helming indie iPhone films before “graduating” to franchise fodder.
The Bubble suffers from a litany of shortcomings, coming together to make something that is somehow worse than the sum of its parts. The CGI-generated segments of Cliff Beasts 6 that punctuate the film are mildly entertaining, but it’s honestly puzzling as to why Apatow felt the need to include these fully-realized snippets at all. The comedy inherent to drab green screens coupled with lackadaisical actors would communicate the would-be movie’s ridiculousness much more effectively than the disproportional flying creatures provided by Industrial Light & Magic. Clearly siphoning much of the project’s budget and attention, the intra-film spectacle doesn’t even bolster the character development of the ensemble, the majority of which are criminally underwritten to begin with. Instead of focusing on telling a behind-the-scenes tale of working on a meaningless action movie during a plague, The Bubble becomes yet another vapid vanity project with nothing to say. Particularly following Apatow’s previous effort, 2020’s The King of Staten Island, The Bubble distinctly feels like an ill-conceived pandemic brainchild as opposed to the focused character studies he typically directs. If The Bubble proves anything, it’s that not all art produced during the pandemic will be innately valuable; much of it will also be uninspired drivel. While attempting to highlight the inconsequential nature of “rich people problems,” the film isn’t incisive or clever enough to parody the very cinematic sensation it’s unintentionally playing into.
Director: Judd Apatow
Writers: Judd Apatow, Pam Brady
Stars: Karen Gillan, Iris Apatow, Fred Armisen, Maria Bakalova, David Duchovny, Keegan-Michael Key, Leslie Mann, Pedro Pascal, Peter Serafinowicz, Vir Das, Rob Delaney
Release Date: April 1, 2022 (Netflix)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan