Judd Apatow Made the Worst Comedy of 2022
When COVID took hold in 2020, some enterprising storytellers independently got the bright idea of making movies about the pandemic, using their anxious, mournful characters to explore how we were all grappling with the world-changing new reality in which we found ourselves. Obviously, these films and TV shows were meant to be cathartic or soothing — a way for everyone to collectively process the unimaginable — but the other thing they had in common was that they were almost uniformly terrible, in large part because nobody needed entertainment to remind us of the terrible circumstances around us. More often than not when we’re choosing what to watch, we want to escape, not stare at our misery in closer detail.
Across Judd Apatow’s nearly 20-year career as a writer-director, he’s often focused on immature men (or, in the case of Trainwreck, an immature woman) stumbling toward becoming full-fledged grownups. From The 40-Year-Old Virgin to The King of Staten Island, his comedies have been melancholy, wise, rude, thoughtful. But they’ve never really worried about being about something — they were just funny for funny’s sake.
Which is to say that I’m not sure anybody was looking to Apatow for a trenchant satire on COVID life seen through the prism of a group of deluded actors and filmmakers who are trying to make a crappy sci-fi blockbuster in the midst of quarantine. But after watching The Bubble, I’d humbly suggest that cultural commentary isn’t his strong suit. Great movies you’ll remember for a lifetime, but it’s also true of some stinkers. The Bubble was the year’s worst comedy — it is unforgettably unfunny.
Inspired by the hell that Jurassic World Dominion’s cast and crew endured filming during a pandemic while being cooped up in a hotel, The Bubble stars Karen Gillan as Carol, who was once part of the popular, not-very-good Cliff Beasts franchise before going off to do a serious movie that got terrible reviews and destroyed her reputation. Well, now she’s back in the fold, and she flies to England, where she and the rest of the veteran Cliff Beasts ensemble — including self-absorbed actor Dustin (David Duchovny) and his ex, and co-star, Lauren (Leslie Mann) — hang out in a swanky hotel in the midst of shooting the sixth installment in the series, Cliff Beasts 6: Battle for Everest: Memories of a Requiem. As you can tell from that title, this sequel is not going to be any good, and certainly other comedies have been crafted about the making of bad movies. The Bubble, however, subverts the formula: It’s a god-awful film about a god-awful film.
Apatow, who interviewed his stand-up idols as a kid and got his first big break working on The Larry Sanders Show, has been part of show business for a long time. In films like Funny People and Trainwreck, he’s done really sharp bits about the egos and idiocy of Hollywood. (Remember that brilliantly cheesy fake Daniel Radcliffe/Marisa Tomei rom-com buried inside Trainwreck?) It’s so deflating, then, that The Bubble has nothing clever to say about the film industry, the insecurity of actors, the prevalence of dumb popcorn flicks at the multiplex or the pandemic — and that it spends two hours saying nothing clever over and over again. There’s a fatal self-satisfaction to the film’s easy targets — a misplaced certainty on Apatow and co-writer Pam Brady’s part that they’re really nailing blockbuster culture. But what they’ve actually achieved is creating an environment in which a lot of talented performers flail around without anything witty coming out of their mouths.
And, oh, does The Bubble have great people in it. Keegan-Michael Key! Maria Bakalova! Pedro Pascal! Peter Serafinowicz! Okay, look, Kate McKinnon isn’t my cup of tea, but plenty of folks love her, and she’s in this, too! But actors can only do so much with “COVID tests sure are hysterical, amirite?!” — and then there’s the question of the movie within The Bubble. I understand that Cliff Beasts 6 is supposed to be an abomination: a worst-case scenario of every lazy sequel perpetuated by a past-its-prime franchise trying to extend its shelf life while wringing a couple more dollars out of its fan base. The thing is, Cliff Beasts 6 isn’t bad in the way that, say, Jurassic World Dominion is bad — it’s inertly moronic in a manner that suggests that Apatow didn’t even bother thinking about (or watching) the sorts of movies he’s trying to satirize. There are lots of things to make fun of about blockbusters. Apatow succeeds in missing all of them.
Not only is The Bubble’s mockery unfocused, there’s no affection or anger — no sense of how Apatow feels about the mega-budget behemoths whose cultural dominance threatens to drown out all other kinds of movies, including comedies like Apatow’s. For better or worse, an Apatow movie feels like something he has to make, caring so much about his messy, bighearted characters that he doesn’t mind letting his films go way over two hours — it’s as if he can’t bear to say goodbye to his creations. But in The Bubble there’s none of that warmth — the movie is populated only by Hollywood clichés, like the jerky executive (McKinnon) and the sellout indie auteur (Fred Armisen). What there is a lot of, though, is the baggy, strained improvisation that, in the past, could be great in Apatow’s movies but here is just interminable. Apatow doesn’t seem to like these people at all — and he struggles to find anything funny about them — so why in the hell should we?
All of us went through a tough time during the pandemic. It was a period of isolation, uncertainty, depression, loss. We had to find ways to cope, however we could. For his part, Judd Apatow decided to make a movie — he wanted to give us something to laugh about in the midst of all that darkness. I sincerely hope it helped him, because it definitely didn’t do anything for the rest of us.