If and when the COVID-19 pandemic fully ceases, one of the relics from this bizarre time (beyond the face masks) will be the COVID movie. To keep the content flowing during the height of the pandemic, studios pushed smaller pictures that had a limited cast and limited locations into production. Movies like Locked Down, Malcom and Marie, The Guilty, and Kimi, whether explicitly about our current situation or not, made what they could of a bad situation and told smaller scale stories to various degrees of success. It’s become something of its own genre.
Judd Apatow’s latest comedy for Netflix, The Bubble, is not only another example of this trend, but it also uses the realities of making a movie during quarantine as a means of showbiz satire. The premise is that a small group of actors, played by Karen Gillan, Pedro Pascal, David Duchovny, Leslie Mann, and Keegan-Michael Key, among others, are holed up in the English countryside to film the latest installment of a mega-franchise. Apatow’s premise is inspired by the shoot for Jurassic World Dominion, where the actors all lived together in a hotel throughout filming. Ergo, the streaming audience of today is meant to laugh as the cast and crew navigate the difficulties of following COVID-19 protocols, like quarantining and taking rapid tests.
Unfortunately, COVID jokes just simply aren’t all that funny. The Bubble is being released after two full years of life during a pandemic; all the observational humor about how uncomfortable swabs are, or how it seems like those in charge of safety mandates are making it up on the fly, have been done to death. While coming at the material as a Hollywood satire is a clever conceit, it simply doesn’t deliver memorable results.
The Bubble is more successful when it keeps its focus solely on moviemaking and the state of the industry. Hearing David Duchovny’s character refer to himself as an “uncredited producer” and “the guardian of the franchise” gets genuine laughs, as do observations about traditional celebrity versus social media celebrity, and actors performing their own stunts. Like past Apatow comedies, the biggest laughs come from characters talking about their own insecurities, but this is the broadest comedy of Apatow’s career, and it’s missing a bit of the hyper-specific, weirdo eccentricity of his best work. Much of the film plays like loosely related sketches, leading to a hit-and-miss quality that more often narrowly misses the mark than it hits the bullseye.
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the film is its inclusion of TikTok-related humor. Apatow’s daughter Iris plays a TikTok superstar cast in the film to appeal to Gen Z. The joke is that it’s Hollywood’s craven attempt to appear relevant, but by the time Iris’ character is leading the cast through another TikTok dance, it feels like the film is guilty of what they’re skewering. There are clever ways to make jokes about TikTok and its audience—there’s a good bit about Key’s character trying not to feel threatened by the platform’s stars—but the film mostly goes for the obvious, low-hanging fruit.
There’s a chance that The Bubble is another product of the realities of shooting in a real bubble, but this is also Apatow’s most anonymous effort behind the camera. Even in his lesser films, like The King of Staten Island and This is 40, Apatow utilizes ace cinematographers to make his films feel warm and beautiful to look at. If his wife and daughter weren’t in the movie, it would be hard to believe that Apatow shot this himself. One saving grace is that the director is always looking to highlight new comedic voices, and performers like Guz Khan, Harry Trevaldwyn, and Borat breakout Maria Bakalova are given great opportunities to showcase their unique skills. There’s also a few surprise celebrity cameos that score.
With an inspired concept and a few memorable moments, The Bubble isn’t a complete waste of effort, but the closer it stays to its COVID-related material, the less interesting it is to watch. Also, in typical Apatow fashion, the film overstays its welcome by a half hour. While its admirable that Apatow and company would work to keep viewers entertained during a scary time, it’s clear that once COVID is completely behind us, there will be little reason to revisit The Bubble.