Producer: Judd Apatow Director: Judd Apatow Screenplay: Judd Apatow and Pam Brady Cast: Karen Gillan, Iris Apatow, Fred Armisen, Maria Bakalova, David Duchovny, Samson Kayo, Keegan-Michael Key, Guz Khan, Leslie Mann, Kate McKinnon, Pedro Pascal, Peter Serafinowicz, Harry Trevaldwyn, Danielle Vitalis, Vir Das, Rob Delaney, Raphael Acloque, Chris Witaske, Galen Hopper, Maria Bakalova, Ross Lee, Nick Kocher, Celeste Dring, Ben Ashenden and Alexander Owen Distributor: Netflix
Lots of small films have been made about pandemic isolation, sometimes straight-on and often by indirection; here’s a big one, which might have felt cutting-edge in its humor while it was being made but now comes off as not just comedically feeble but passé.
The premise of Judd Apatow’s movie involves trying to make a huge CGI action extravaganza, the sixth in a tentpole franchise, in the middle of the COVID outbreak. The “bubble,” of course, refers to the supposedly safe closed environment at an English hotel where the cast and crew are brought for the shoot. Naturally things go badly, especially since everybody on hand is a klutz, a prima donna, or both. This is the sort of idea that might have worked as a sketch on a TV variety show, but dragged out to more than two hours it would be cruelly repetitive even if the script had any real wit or bite.
Apatow assembled a small army of big names and notable farceurs to fill the large cast of characters he and Pam Brady imagined. Among the stars of “Cliff Beasts 6: Battle for Everest” are Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan), whose colleagues are none too welcoming because she skipped the previous installment to play a Jewish-Palestinian heroine in a bomb called “Jerusalem Rising,” and Sean Knox (Keegan-Michael Key), who’s also pushing a lifestyle system called “Harmony Ignite” that everyone takes for a new cult. Then there’s Lauren Van Chance (Leslie Mann), a ditzy dame who alternately fights and flirts with her ex, Dustin Mulray (David Duchovny), who aims to turn the goofy men-against-beasties franchise into something meaningful by rewriting the script. Bumptious Howie Frangopolous (Guz Khan) serves as comic relief.
Two newbies have been added to the cast for this installment. One is over-the-hill veteran Dieter Bravo (Pedro Pascal) and the other popular TikTok sensation Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow), hired to attract her fan demographic by doing dance numbers that she’ll also post on her platform.
After a two-week quarantine in which the self-isolation prescribed by on-site producer Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz), who’s being pressured, Zoom-style, by the studio exec (Kate McKinnon) overseeing the project to keep things on track, and implemented by his two inept aides, safety officer Gunther (Harry Trevaldwyn) and general factotum Bola (Samson Kayo), drives everybody crazy, rehearsals and filming begin under the direction of Darren Eigen (Fred Armisen), a goofily committed neophyte whose previous project was a Sundance succès d’estime made on an iPhone while working at Home Depot.
Things go reasonably well at first, with much of the work done in front of green screens, but frayed tempers soon set in, leading to a series of catastrophes. Howie goes bonkers and runs away, necessitating his character being gruesomely bumped off; Krystal and her deadpan friend, production aide Carla (Galen Hopper), sneak off to town one night and are caught partying, with devastating effect on her online popularity; when her boyfriend dumps her long-distance, Carol takes up with a soccer player (Raphael Acloque) whose team is also staying at the hotel, only to suffer further humiliation; Lauren and Dustin quarrel over their adopted teen son, who hates them both; Dieter pines after a hotel clerk (Maria Bakalova), who demands a serious commitment before she’ll give in to his advances; Sean has to confess that his system of bringing its users contentment isn’t all he’s cracked it up to be.
That just touches the surface. Controversies erupt over the script and Darren’s direction. There’s lots of drug and booze humor, and a cast rebellion as illness crops up, further halts in the shooting are mandated, and the studio sends in a security man (Ross Lee) to impose order with a heavy hand; indeed, his methods leads to one cast member actually losing one herself. In the end the entire production collapses as the cast stage an escape, but an epilogue shows that there is vindication of the effort in the form of a behind-the-scenes documentary shot by on-set photographer Scott (Nick Kocher).
The cast all throw themselves into the movie with professional energy, but they’re playing cardboard characters, mugging a lot; and Apatow seems to be directing traffic rather than a real movie. He also further expands a narrative that’s already clumsily episodic by squeezing in a slew of cameo appearances by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Beck, John Lithgow, Daisy Ridley, James McAvoy and John Cena. None of them amount to much, but at least they pass quickly.
Considering the pandemic strictures they must have been operating under, the technical team–cinematographer Ben Smithar, production designer Mark Tildesley, costumer Lynsey Moore and visual effects supervisors Roger Guyett and Russell Earl—have done a more than acceptable job, though the final result is pretty garish. Editors James Thomas and Dan Schalk had an unenviable job trying to mold an unwieldy mass of material into smooth whole, and haven’t really succeeded, but they gave it the old college try. The score by Michael Andrews and Andrew Bird works rather desperately to prop up the weaker segments.
There may be enough insider gags and jokes here to sporadically amuse regular viewers of TV shows like “Entertainment Tonight,” “Inside Edition,” and “TMZ,” but they’re so scattershot and sophomoric that even those inclined to wonder what disasters lurk on a disorganized movie set are apt to lose interest after a while. Everyone else will probably find “The Bubble” an elephantine misfire too puerile to be called a satire and too effortful to succeed as a comedy.