Two years into the pandemic, filmmakers will either ignore our current reality entirely, subtly weave it in (such as the latest from Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Joachim Trier), or approach head-on. With The Bubble, a movie about making a movie that barely feels like a movie, Judd Apatow leaves no stone unturned in mining comedy from each and every new COVID-induced social peculiarity. But rather than prove provocatively daring in its humor––Radu Jude perhaps left little else on the table in such regard––the film ends up feeling like a halfwitted, slighter version of Tropic Thunder, delivering a scattershot barrage of humor through thinly sketched characters that jump from skit to skit with very little to grasp.
Inspired by the real-life pandemic production of the forthcoming Jurassic World Dominion, the movie-within-the-movie is Cliff Beasts 6: The Battle for Everest: Memories of the Requiem, a payday for all involved. Set amongst the lavish hotel in which cast and crew are quarantined, as well as green-screen sets, we enter the story through actress Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan), who skipped out on Cliff Beasts 5 but after a career spiral is returning to the dino-fueled franchise fodder. Grappling with their own insecurities about star power and aging in Hollywood, the ensemble includes on-and-off flames and franchise stalwarts Dustin Mulray (David Duchovny) and Lauren Van Chance (Leslie Mann); serious actor Dieter Bravo (Pedro Pascal), looking to get laid any chance he gets; action star Sean Knox (Keegan-Michael Key), who may have recently started his own cult; comedic relief Howie Frangopolous (Guz Khan), and TikTok icon Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow), checking a requisite demographic box for the studio.
Try as this ensemble might, the few laughs mostly come from behind the camera on the production as creative forces attempt to save a tentpole careening into disaster. Fred Armisen, never not funny, plays Darren Eigan, a director who was pulled up to the big leagues after helming the short film “Tiles of Love” while working at Home Depot––a humorous nod to today’s Hollywood brass plucking controllable talent they can bend to their whims to tackle the latest blockbuster. Keeping it all in order is the straight-faced producer (Peter Serafinowicz) answering to studio head Paula (Kate McKinnon), who may not be as wild as Les Grossman, but fares best in landing jokes, Zooming in from lavish locales showing off her elite privilege as the world suffers from the pandemic.
Coming off The King of Staten Island, which—shot on 35mm by Robert Elswit—at least looked like a real movie, The Bubble’s washed-out digital sheen courtesy cinematographer Ben Smithard adds a bland aesthetic to the already drawn-out proceedings. All this wouldn’t be as glaring of an issue if the jokes worked, but the hit-and-miss ratio is the most unfavorable in Apatow’s career. As co-written with Pam Brady (Hot Rod, South Park), extended gags (?) about TikTok––yes, featuring full-on dance sequences as if they were shot on the app––come across as little more than attempts to pad the runtime. Jokes featuring COVID tests and the bottled-up anxieties of quarantine wear out their welcome after the first go-around, about ten minutes in. While the very conceit is to show various trials and tribulations of an over-extended shoot caused by the new, protocol-heavy era of film productions, The Bubble musters up very little insight, ticking the obvious boxes and coming across as more exhausting than entertaining.
Bits and pieces work—an underused Maria Bakalova, in one of her first post-Borat roles, stands out as she contends with Dieter’s advances; there are a few laughs seeing Carol dealing with a crumbling relationship at home with no way to intervene; Dustin placing more importance over this franchise than his newly adopted son––but The Bubble‘s vast majority plays as Day for Night for dummies. Comedy can certainly be extracted from the strange new world we find ourselves in, but Apatow’s project is a meta experiment in search of a purpose beyond delivering a few scant chuckles.
The Bubble arrives on Netflix on Friday, April 1.