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‘The Bubble’ Review: Judd Apatow’s Dismal Pandemic Satire Already Feels Dated

Judd Apatow's sketchy and scattershot Netflix comedy about the making of a blockbuster during lockdown is almost entirely laugh-free.

Scene from The Bubble on Netflix

“The Bubble”

Unpleasant as it is to watch one of the greatest comedy directors of the 21st century grin their way through the kind of leaden and disjointed mess that manages to feel oppressively self-amused even as it swears its making fun of itself, Netflix seems determined to keep cranking them out. At least until “one of the greatest comedy directors of the 21st century grinning their way through the kind of leaden and disjointed mess that manages to feel oppressively self-amused even as it swears its making fun of itself” describes enough movies to become its own category on the streamer’s homepage.

While Judd Apatow’s “The Bubble” isn’t as grating or grandiose as Adam McKay’s apocalyptic “Don’t Look Up,” this star-studded Hollywood caricature is even more unexpectedly depressing. That element of surprise doesn’t work to Apatow’s advantage. It’s not meant to be a compliment when I say that “The Bubble” is depressing in a way that modern comedies rarely are — that it’s depressing in a way as novel as the coronavirus that inspired it.

Set on a quarantined blockbuster film shoot during the height of the pandemic, and released more than two years into a global crisis that continues to surprise us with fun new twists every time we get cocky, “The Bubble” crystallizes the unique pain of watching a woefully dated satire about the same crisis you’re still trying to outlast. Not only dated in a “here’s a bad joke about Da Baby” sort of way, but more frequently dated in an “aren’t nasal swabs annoying?” sort of way. It’s low-hanging fruit that all of us have already picked clean on our time. Which isn’t to suggest that people can’t make funny comedies about COVID (several of them already have!), only that I didn’t fully appreciate how long we’ve all been trapped in this purgatory until I saw an unfunny comedy about it that’s set in 2020, shot in early 2021, and feels like it’s roughly 9,000 years old.

It’s commendable that Apatow scrambled to make something positive out of a bad situation, and even more commendable that he used the opportunity to highlight a wide range of new comic talents from around the world (in addition to the familiar ones that he found in his own house). But a gifted cast of improvisers isn’t enough to disguise that Apatow and co-writer Pam Brady (“Hamlet 2”) had to knock out the initial script in record time, nor does it change the fact that a movie this broad and disjointed — this dependent on to-the-minute audience commiseration instead of anything deeper — was never going to stay fresh enough to survive a typical, year-long post-production process.

“In the early days of the pandemic,” the opening title card announces, “there was a content shortage… this is the story of the making of ‘Cliff Beasts 6,’ and the brave people who fought heroically to bring distractions to humanity.” “The Bubble” hasn’t even gotten to its first proper scene and yet it’s already clear that Apatow’s movie should’ve been a mockumentary. “The Bubble” gradually seems to regret its straightforward approach, but telling this story in a more formalized way would’ve required more advance planning than the project made possible. It also wouldn’t have allowed “The Bubble” to so comfortably have its cake and eat it, too: to be a comedy that ridicules the same content crisis it was created to help solve.

“Cliff Beasts” is billed as “the 23rd biggest action franchise of all time,” and the full title of its latest installment is actually “Cliff Beasts 6: The Battle for Everest: Memories of the Requiem” — a first draft of a joke in a first draft of a movie so ramshackle and tossed off that it makes “This Is 40” feel like “The French Dispatch.” Carol (Karen Gillan, who clearly deserves a major studio comedy of her own) had the good sense to ditch Cliff Beasts Cinematic Universe before it got to double-colon levels of despair, but playing a half-Jewish, half-Palestinian in a star vehicle called “Jerusalem Rising” turned out not to be such a hot idea for a white American woman named Carol, and so it’s easy for her agent (Rob Delaney, in the first of many iffy cameos) to convince her to hop back on the gravy train. Besides, a film set is the safest place to be in such pre-vaccine times.

And so it’s off to the Palladian country house where the movie will be filmed, and where its cast will be held prisoner as COVID shutdowns turn a paycheck sequel into the “Apocalypse Now” of multiplex crap (aside from the director and the kid shooting the EPK, the “Cliff Beasts” crew doesn’t really seem to exist). It’s there, on the banks of the River Thames, where Carol will find herself mixed up in a wacky ensemble of people who already can’t stand each other by the time they arrive. Individually, they all have a lot to offer a movie that amounts to much less than the sum of its parts.

The always funny Leslie Mann does her usual shtick as the vapid star of the first five “Cliff Beasts,” while David Duchovny fits right into the Apatow mold as the on-again, off-again husband (and self-proclaimed “guardian of the franchise”) with whom she adopted a teenage son a few days before their last divorce. Keegan-Michael Key does lots of high-energy stuff in his role as another of the series’ leading men, but his performance feels like it could’ve been air-lifted out of 10 better things he’s been in before. That’s doubly true of Fred Armisen’s extremely Fred Armisen turn as the Sundance-minted director who gets in over his head.

At least Pedro Pascal tiptoes beyond his comfort zone, as the “Game of Thrones” star embraces a purer stripe of comedy than he’s ever done before. In a movie where actual laughs are almost impossible to find, Pascal always seems like he might stumble across the motherlode at any minute, and his turn as a pretentious method actor who gets blindsided by the forthright girl working the hotel check-in desk (“Borat 2” breakout Maria Bakalova, briefly reaffirming her raw genius) is enough to hope that he’ll offset the seriousness of his roles in “The Mandalorian” and “The Last of Us” with more silliness in the future.

New faces — or old faces doing new things — pop across “The Bubble” with enough frequency that it becomes frustratingly possible to see what Apatow was aiming for, and what he might have achieved if his movie didn’t feel like a random collection of unrelated sketches that are linked only by the shared concept between them. It’s clear that Harry Trevaldwyn (playing the willowy COVID tester who desperately wants to be friend the stars) and Guz Khan (as a “Cliff Beasts” cast member who can’t stand the quarantine) are major finds, but “The Bubble” is far too unfocused to show off what they can do. The same goes for Apatow’s daughter Iris, who was great on Netflix’s “Love,” and mines a real character from her role as an ultra-naive influencer who lands a part in “Cliff Beasts 6” because of her social media following. The full-ensemble TikTok dance video she choreographs to Zola Jesus’ majestic “Sea Talk” is almost magnetic enough to single-handedly collect the messy pieces of this broken movie.

Apatow gets a lot of shit for making scattershot comedies that run the length of David Lean epics, but the patchwork of scenes that comprise his latest have less in common with “Funny People” than they do “Movie 43,” and might just be aimless enough to make the director’s critics appreciate the flow of his earlier work. The occasional bit lands well enough that it can be tempting to see the film’s erratic mishmash of unrelated jokes as a stir-crazy expression of our collective lockdown cabin fever (John Lithgow and a certain Scottish actor deliver industry-parodying moments that suggest “The Bubble” should’ve played more inside baseball), but Apatow’s movie is never intentional enough to escape the same “just be glad we made something for you” feeling that it’s ostensibly trying to skewer, and it’s being released long after we’ve outgrown the desperation that required it. The fatal irony of “The Bubble” is that it’s never been harder to be grateful that it exists.

Grade: D+

“The Bubble” will be available to stream on Netflix starting April 1.

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