Just when you thought that the summer of 2001 couldn’t possibly inflict upon us a comedy worse than “Rat Race” (“Freddy Got Fingered,” of course, having appeared in the spring and being in an entirely more loathsome category), along comes “Bubble Boy,” an empty-headed, chaotic, utterly tasteless atrocity of such staggering proportions that it may even make you more tolerant of Jerry Zucker’s miserable movie.
The script is about Jimmy Livingston (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man with severe combined immunodeficiency disease (SCID), whose body’s inability to fight even the commonest infections forces him to live inside an elaborate system of germ-free “bubbles” constructed by his all-controlling mother (Swoosie Kurtz) in their suburban California house. As a teen, however, he falls head over heels for his beautiful next-door neighbor (Marley Shelton); and when she goes off to Niagara Falls to marry her scumbag of a boyfriend (Dave Sheridan), he slaps together a portable bubble in which he can take off on a cross-country rush to get to the church in time to proclaim his love and halt the wedding. (The premise itself is extraordinarily dumb, of course– nobody goes to Niagara Falls to get married, they’re married at home and then sometimes go there to honeymoon–but the lazy scriptwriters obviously needed some device, however idiotic, to turn their tale into a road movie.) Along the way, he meets up with group after group of colorful eccentrics–a nearly-comatose ticket-seller at an isolated bus depot, a bunch of bus-traveling cultists (who come to consider him their messiah), a rough-and-tumble motocyclist, a midget circus-act manager and his collection of sideshow freaks (Tod Browning must be writhing in his grave), an Indian who drives an “Ice cream and curry” truck, the Chinese proprietor of a bar sponsoring mud-wrestling contests, and a wizened geezer of a truck-driver. It would be impossible to disentangle how all these figures interact as they variously help and pursue Jimmy during his journey (his mom and dad are hot on his trail too, of course), because writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and director Blair Hayes have gone about constructing the picture by tossing all the elements mentioned above–along with numerous others–into a kind of cinematic blender, mashing everything together in what was apparently an effort to come up with a wildly anarchic, almost surrealistic funfest. What emerges instead is a sad, soggy mess, a random collection of crude, stupid sketches made all the more unpalatable by the fact that it wants to be stickily sweet, too. “Bubble Boy” is structured like a bad dream, and has about the same effect of both disturbing and exhausting you.
All this would be bad enough if the movie were just mindlessly dumb, but it’s actually offensive as well. Despite disclaimers, the dreadful script was obviously inspired by the case of David Vetter, a youngster who died in 1984 after living for twelve years in a protective bubble. (Another source was clearly the 1976 telefilm “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” a fictional piece in which John Travolta played a young man living in a similar environment, who–shock of shocks!–falls for the girl next door. As far as disease-of-the-week movies from that time went, it wasn’t a bad picture.) In the present version, however, Jimmy is made to appear mentally retarded as well as physically ill–he’s a goofy dullard with spiked hair and a squeaky, Jerry Lewis voice)–and he spends most of his time falling down, crashing into things and being run over. The fact that Gyllenhaal, a decent actor (he was quite effective in “October Sky’) has to go through this miserable slapstick for nearly an hour an a half is intolerable enough, but one can only imagine how people acquainted with somebody actually suffering from the malady Jimmy’s supposed to have might react to watching it. But “Bubble Bob” is offensive in a second sense, too: it’s an unending, indiscriminate rant against the very notion of religious belief. Not only is Jimmy’s mother portrayed as a Jesus freak who’s a complete harridan, engaging in the cruelest sort of deception to “save” her son from the wickedness of the world (and poor Kurtz surely merits some sort of reverse Oscar for her shrill, over-the-top performance)–only to abandon her “faith” at the first glimpse of provocative sexual fun (the soundtrack also includes the lovely tune “Bitch Slap Me Jesus”); but the Indian Pushpak (Brian George) turns out to be a sort of road- show missionary whose beliefs are ridiculed as well, and of course the running gag about the brainwashed cultists (supposedly mesmerized by a guy played by Fabio, of all people) implicitly suggests that all such belief is dangerous nonsense. As if all this weren’t bad enough, the flick also contains the now obligatory mix of double entendres and sniggering gags about erections, premarital sex and bodily functions. How the suits at Disney ever figured that a script with such stuff percolating within it could form a suitable basis for a “family movie” is really incomprehensible.
Bubble-brained and obnoxious, “Bubble Boy” lasts only 84 minutes, but it feels a thousand times longer than “Apocalypse Now Redux.” Advocacy groups for children afflicted with SCID are protesting the picture, quite rightly, for its crass insensitivity toward victims of the affliction; but whether you agree with their objections or not, you’d be well advised to join the boycott they’ve mounted on artistic, if not political, grounds. Another of the songs used in the picture–in a long sequence in which Jimmy, among other things, is pursued across the desert by a buzzard–is a lovely tune titled “Havin’ a Bad Day.” That could become the anthem for audiences unlucky enough to wander into this awful movie.