Judd Apatow has been one of our most reliable humanist filmmakers for the better part of fifteen years, deftly utilizing the talents of comic stars to make us laugh while also illuminating the human condition in increasingly painful and relatable manners. From the dating exploits of Steve Carell’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin to Seth Rogen’s hilarious, heartfelt Knocked Up, Apatow kicked off an entire era of comedy that ruled the cineplex. That era eventually faded away, however, as streaming overtook the genre and his rolodex of friends and funny actors eventually outgrew the genre and went their separate ways, Carell becoming a bonafide movie star and Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg becoming a producing power duo. Recently he’s continued that track record, collaborating with up-and-coming comics like Amy Schumer and Pete Davidson to produce semi-autobiographical comedies, some of them hitting the spot (Trainwreck) more than others (The King of Staten Island). Apatow’s latest, The Bubble, is a first for him for many reasons. It’s his first foray into streaming, his first pure satire, and the first time he’s made an unequivocally bad movie.
The Bubble often feels like the product of a completely different filmmaker, somebody inspired by the crass, unfunny parodies of Friedberg & Seltzer more than his own brand of dramedy. Apatow is the second coming of James L. Brooks, and yet here he’s zagging to be a spoofmeister. Clearly, satire is not his wheelhouse, and it shows. Despite a splendid cast including wife Leslie Mann, daughter Iris Apatow, and comics like Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Armisen, Kate McKinnon, and Borat’s Maria Bakalova, the film is a scattershot series of sketches revolving around a film crew going through hell while shooting a Jurassic Park-esque blockbuster in the middle of early-COVID quarantine. The laughs are few and far between, and frequently due to low-hanging fruit such as universal COVID experiences (nose swabs and navel-gazing in lockdown) and already-dated TikTok jokes. A majority of the cast is either off-key (Key, McKinnon), miscast (David Dachovny), or out of their depth comedically (Karen Gillan). Lone bright spots belong to Bakalova and Pascal, the latter portraying a method actor past his prime and longing for love, the former lighting up the screen once again as a hotel employee Pascal’s character is smitten with while sleep-walking through life in the “bubble.” Here’s hoping Apatow returns to what him brought him to the big lights.
P.S. The Jurassic Park riff Cliff Beasts 6 is too B-movie-godawful to be a major Hollywood production, another way in which Apatow’s satire misses the mark.