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The Bubble review: Karen Gillan's new comedy falls flat

A desperate comedy that strands its talented cast.

Pedro Pascal and others in "The Bubble"
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

A great concept and cast fall painfully flat in this unfunny Netflix comedy.

For

  • The ensemble cast is game to make fun of the film industry
  • Karen Gillan is always a welcome presence in the leading spotlight

Against

  • Despite a solid premise, The Bubble's jokes almost always fail
  • This film's timing amidst the pandemic is a year off
  • So much of the humor has been done better, and sharper, before

In comedy, timing is everything. When a punchline lands, it can make for a brilliant joke. But if the timing is off, it can lead to failure. Judd Apatow’s new Netflix comedy The Bubble is unfortunately a case of bad timing, from top to bottom. 

Though the high-concept premise for The Bubble may seem novel — as Apatow explores what it would be like to make a big-budget blockbuster during the COVID-19 pandemic — the execution of this premise is rarely funny, often confusing and painfully overlong.

Karen Gillan stars as Carol Cobb, an actress best known for her work in the Cliff Beasts franchise (an obvious riff on the Jurassic World movies, the latter of which filmed during the pandemic). Carol is encouraged by her agent to rejoin the franchise for its sixth entry after a disastrous attempt to make a powerful drama that only managed to "offend Palestinians and Jews." While everyone, from the slick producer (Peter Serafinowicz) to the production’s on-set health staff, tries to make Carol and the other cast members comfortable, it soon becomes clear that this stacked ensemble of selfish A-listers are just one slight nudge away from losing their minds.

Gillan is joined by a cadre of ringers in the cast. There’s Pedro Pascal as a former Oscar winner who’s quickly infatuated with a clerk (Maria Bakalova) at the upscale hotel where the cast is quarantining; Keegan-Michael Key as a perpetually upbeat action star trying to get everyone to buy into his cult-like new lifestyle brand; David Duchovny and Leslie Mann as co-stars who have a tempestuous on-again, off-again romance; and Fred Armisen as an indie director given the chance to make his first big blockbuster. Everyone in The Bubble knows how to sell good jokes, either through past work in sketch comedy or just through their plain talent.

The problem isn’t the cast. It’s that Apatow and co-writer Pam Brady try to do so much in the span of a sluggish 122-minute runtime. Giving each character their own subplot that feels shakily sketched out, the The Bubble never achieves any comic forward momentum. 

At the outset, Carol seems like the logical main character (and notably, Gillan gets first billing in the end credits), trying to balance her wish to be free of the mindless Cliff Beasts franchise with a desire to make good with the cast members who she’d left behind. But after some initial tensions, specifically between her and Mann’s character, Carol becomes just one cog in the larger machine of making the sixth entry in a terrible franchise simply because the nameless studio bankrolling the project is desperate for a hit.

Often, the movie The Bubble feels most like is Ben Stiller’s biting 2008 satire Tropic Thunder, which was much nastier and darkly funny in its depiction of enormously selfish and idiotic celebrities with a crippling lack of self-awareness. While Tropic Thunder has not aged extremely well, its rowdy take on celebrity culture is a lot sharper than the wide net Apatow and Brady cast in The Bubble

The movie tries to be as modern as possible, specifically with Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow), a TikTok celebrity cast in Cliff Beasts 6 to appeal to a younger audience. The Bubble is stuffed with overlong and unfunny dance sequences. Yes, plural. There are multiple TikTok dance sequences here, whose humor is basically summed up as, "Wouldn’t it be funny to watch famous people do TikTok dance sequences?"

The Bubble just isn’t very funny, no matter how hard it tries. Sometimes, the humor fails because it’s unexpectedly violent, as in one sequence where one of the actors learns the bloody downside of trying to escape from the hotel in the middle of production amidst a high level of security. Sometimes the humor fails because it’s just lazy. 

To that end, you can mark The Bubble down as what feels like the millionth modern comedy where the lead characters have a wild drug freakout (teased in the trailer, when Duchovny’s character hallucinates Benedict Cumberbatch’s face on one of his fellow actors). So much of the humor in The Bubble feels lazy specifically because some variation of its jokes have been told again and again.

The premise of The Bubble feels rife with original possibilities, so it’s especially disappointing to find such dull attempts at comedy throughout. Even some of the more sly attempts at satire feel like first-draft jokes, as when we see a chain-of-command conversation between various studio executives (including one played by Kate McKinnon) that just ends with two lonely execs realizing they’re on the same tropical island and can play tennis together. 

Most of The Bubble is like that — complaints from famous people while they live it up in fancy locales and struggle through the very hard job of making a movie that probably no one really wants to see. That class-based issue is teased at a couple of times through the intermingling of A-list actors and hotel staff, but only barely. 

Otherwise, The Bubble, from its beginning to extended climax, is a too-late attempt to tackle a very unique modern issue of the 2020s. Maybe if this movie arrived a year ago it would feel a bit more on point. But timing really is everything and The Bubble doesn’t have it.

The Bubble premieres on Netflix April 1.

Josh Spiegel
Josh Spiegel

Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.