Partway through The Bubble, Judd Apatow’s new film about a swarm of A-listers banding together to make a blockbuster sequel in the early days of the pandemic, Dustin (David Duchovny) pleads with Sundance-darling-turned-Blockbuster-producer Darren (Fred Armisen) to let him rewrite the script of Cliff Beasts 6 to be smarter and sharper. Darren swiftly shoots down this request, arguing that audiences are dumb, and should be treated as such.
This moment is played for laughs and is largely used to help paint a picture of Dustin as a clueless member of the Hollywood elite who is convinced that he’s doing something important. But this interaction also serves as a meta-comment on The Bubble itself. Indeed, a long-winded comedy about making a movie at the beginning of the pandemic has the potential to say something interesting about celebrity culture, about the way different classes treat crises, about creating art when the world is on the brink of ending. The problem is, Apatow doesn’t seem to think his audience is quite shrewd enough to get it.
A lot of this misfire comes in the form of the characters themselves. Where a staple of Apatow’s films tends to be a refreshingly nuanced comedic character — think Andy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, for example, or more recently Scott in The King of Staten Island — The Bubble sees an ensemble of frustratingly one-dimensional characters. There’s Krystal Kris (Apatow’s daughter Iris Apatow), a teen Tik Tok-er who is only in the film because of the social capital she brings with her internet fame. Sadly, her character is pigeonholed into tired Zoomer tropes, like exploding into hysterics when something negative is said about her on the internet or obsessively learning Tik Tok dances.
Krystal isn’t the only one whose character is flattened into something shallow and warped of all of its potential. Dieter Bravo (Pedro Pascal) is a serious actor with a dry sense of humor but ends up just being played as a coked-up maniac, and Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan) is never given much to do besides watch the set fall apart in front of her. Each character is insecure and spoiled, and they never reach anything more.
Apatow touches on something interesting when juxtaposing the actors and the film’s crew and hotel staff. While the former are consumed by utter hysterics at the prospect of holing up in a luxury hotel while a pandemic rages in the real world, the latter calmly laughs at them. But the latter are also not afforded nearly enough screen time for this discrepancy to come across in any meaningful way. If on-set COVID tester played masterfully by brilliant physical comedian Harry Trevaldwyn, and hotel clerk Anika (the comedic genius Maria Bakalova) had been given more to do, then the untouched themes of class disparity would have undoubtedly added some much-needed flavor to the film.
The Bubble was written in a short amount of time by Apatow and South Park veteran Pam Brady, and it’s obvious that, as a result of the underdeveloped script, a great deal of the film’s dialogue is improvised. At over two hours, the film is overrun by over-long scenes where nothing much happens, and actors are attempting to deliver a good joke, but aren’t quite sure what to springboard off of.
Perhaps this lack of successful humor is due in large part to the fact that Apatow has committed a cardinal sin just by conceiving The Bubble — that being the fact that he made a pandemic film. It’s chock-full of early pandemic tropes: paranoia over a sniffle, arbitrary quarantine hobbies, the novel discomfort of naval swabbing. And as it turns out, it’s virtually impossible to find humor in a topic that feels so deeply dated.
In the utter aimlessness that is The Bubble, it seems that Apatow believed that watching A-listers be vapid and hysterical would be enough to craft a successful comedy. But none of the characters manage to move beyond that which we’ve seen a thousand times before, suggesting that, if they had been afforded a little more nuance, the audience wouldn’t have grasped the fact that this is supposed to be a social commentary. This is disappointing because Apatow has always been an auteur who has a great amount of faith in his audiences. From his surprisingly mature look at high-schoolers in Freaks and Geeks, to the moving look at aging in a relationship in This is 40, he has never been one to spoon-feed his viewers. Hopefully next time he’ll think outside the bubble and give his audience the benefit of the doubt.