The Exterminating Sound Stage: Apatow Skewers Hollywood’s Pandemic Age in Moderately Amusing Satire
Straddling a blurry line between satirizing Hollywood’s franchise cupidity and a queasy self-awareness of becoming the subject of its own indignation, Judd Apatow hurls himself (purposefully) into streaming with the Netflix original The Bubble. In short, it’s a modern take on an old scenario when a cast and crew find themselves in an isolated pandemic bubble at a swank hotel where they’re eventually held hostage as the shoot extends indefinitely. Apatow’s particular brand of comedy isn’t well suited for the sort of razor sharp satire necessary to subvert the strenuousness and ridiculousness of film production during the height of a pandemic, though he does have Pam Brady, “South Park” producer and “Lady Dynamite” writer on hand as co-scribe.
Its superficiality becomes apparent with a two hour plus running time, keeping an even one-note pace and neglecting to take advantage of the weariness and exhaustion which would turn this satire into a full-blown horror film. Instead, it settles into a meta-exercise docudrama foraged from the B-roll electronic press kit of the film-within-the-film’s troubled production. Still, there are plenty of amusing moments, a bevy of notable cameos, and a strong ensemble cast to assist in wallowing through various dead zones which should have been snipped out in a healthy edit.
As the COVID 19 pandemic was raging in early 2020, only two major Hollywood franchise productions were underway. One was Tom Cruise’s next Mission Impossible installment. The other was Cliff Beasts 6, what we’re told up front is the twenty-third biggest franchise of all time. After skipping out on the fifth film only to besmirch her reputation with the political sci-fi flop Jerusalem Rising, Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan) leaves her fiancé (Chris Witaske) and his two kids for a three month shoot outside of London. After cast and crew quarantine for two weeks, they’re all ready to be guided in their bubble by producer Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz) and their meek director Darren Eigan (Fred Armisen). Rifts amongst the cast members are considerably apparent, including the recently divorced Lauren Van Chance (Leslie Mann) and Dustin Murray (David Duchovny). Plucky comic relief Howie Frangopolous (Guz Khan) has forgotten his edibles and aging lothario Dieter Bravo (Pedro Pascal) is unhappy he cannot satisfy his usual compulsions on set. They’re joined by new castmate Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow), a social media star, who threatens the attention hungry and newly created religious zealot, Sean Knox (Keegan-Michael Key). When production is shut down after a staff member tests positive for COVID, so begins an endless cascade of setbacks, in-house griping and eventual rebellion which leads to violence. Because the studio needs Cliff Beasts 6 to be completed, the situation ends up being crew expendable.
The Bubble would have us initially believe Gillan’s Carol Cobb is the focus as she provides the entry point and has more of a tangible life experience outside of her co-stars. But she’s perhaps the most cruelly handled portrait as a self-obsessed actor whose passivity is so frustrating one wishes Apatow and Brady had granted her a (cliched) breakthrough. While The Bubble may sashay away from those kinds of catharsis, it wallows in a sort of self-consuming cynicism suggesting nothing and no one to be salvageable, except perhaps a handful of the essential works on the sidelines (including Borat 2‘s Maria Bakalova amongst them).
The real star of the show ends up being Harry Trevaldwyn as the COVID officer, mainly for seeming so gloriously set apart from the usual tropes. Apatow’s family looms large in the cast, including his wife and frequent collaborator Leslie Mann (who doesn’t get to display her full potential, at least compared to something like the recent Blockers, 2018), and daughter Iris, playing a TikTok star whose contributions will invariably date this film, perhaps unforgivingly. Most of the rest of the cast play well to their various stereotypes, but nearly every scenario demands a punched up re-write (including potential subtext in Cliff Beasts 6, considering we get so many sequences in which it’s featured). The best sequence involves the crew binging on cocaine while their faces morph into visual progressions of their zany conversation (an idea apparently thought up by Peter Serafinowicz, playing the indefatigable producer).
While many of the celebrity cameos are mildly amusing, Kate McKinnon as an insidious Amy Pascal-ish studio head is entertaining, while John Cena as a remote stunt coordinator is another energetically humorous bit. Maria Bamford, John Lithgow, James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley and Beck each snag some chuckles, but considering the bevy of talented folks popping up, The Bubble is oddly only ever at a constant simmer.
While movies about movies are certainly nothing new, a send-up of protocols during the pandemic allows Apatow a certain potency, even if this film will ultimately play like a time capsule. True, there are outrageous moments where boundaries are seemingly crossed only to be immediately ignored, but the set-up taps into arthouse tendencies, specifically Bunuel, who kept people at a party they could never leave in The Exterminating Angel (1962), or denied a merry band of cohorts the ability to sit down and eat a meal in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). And there’s a definite ire girding Apatow’s tendencies, more so than his usual commentary on immature men and their (beautiful) world weary counterparts, suggesting the experience of being one of the first major studio releases during the pandemic with his last film, 2020’s The King of Staten Island (read review), was a bitter experience. But The Bubble is far from Beware a Holy Whore (1971), and more the inevitable glossy version of something Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes also did last year with The Tsugua Diaries. Amusing, but not as charming as something like Ed Wood (1994) or droll like Christopher Guest’s output, The Bubble won’t make you burst, but it’s good for a few winking snickers.