“For once in my life, I wanted to make a movie without having all the responsibilities.” So moans Jeff, the director on the film-within-a-film in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Beware of a Holy Whore.” The West German drama sequesters a movie crew in a coastal Spanish hotel, where the combination of cabin fever and psychological discord between a group of insecure, neurotic people breeds the rarefied level of hysteria only found in show business. “The Bubble,” Judd Apatow’s newly released support for my theory that Netflix is where competent directors go to make their worst work, updates the broad contours of Fassbinder’s pressure-cooker setup to the era of early-COVID lockdown. And though the slapdash collection of stupendously unfunny bits lampoons a moment in filmmaking characterized by meticulous care under life-and-death stakes, it does feel like Apatow’s taken the words of his predecessor-in-spirit Jeff to heart.
In its disjointedness, its halting pace, its lack of polish betraying a hurried production, and its preponderance of Zoom-assisted cameos from Apatow’s thick Rolodex (ladies and gentlemen, Beck!), this unit of content has more in common with the bevy of morale-boosting televised specials during the pandemic’s first year than cinema. As the final dialogue exchange states in nakedly self-exculpatory terms, the Juddernaut set out to give a weary world something to laugh at during a grim time, no matter if the final product turns out a little rough around the edges. But Apatow seems to have let that relaxed standard fall into the bottom of the barrel, allowing himself to neglect basic things like character, dialogue, or even functional humor. A film that takes so many below-the-belt jabs at the idiocy of Tinseltown blockbusters must, at the very least, be a few IQ points higher than the stuff it makes fun of for being stupid.
Though the elements of satire are hardly scathing; everyone’s gathered at a tony British manor for principal photography on “Cliff Beasts 6,” a special-effects showcase in “Jurassic Park” font that accordingly scans as ‘90s pabulum rather than today’s brand of IP-reboot crapola. A cocktail party introduces the cast, though blatant inconsistencies in their behavior and dynamics from scene to scene render engaging with them impossible. Carol (Karen Gillan) appears to be the most aware that she’s making a pile of abject garbage, and yet she’s slinking back to the franchise after having ditched for a laterally boneheaded project in which she united Israel and Palestine against the common enemy of extraterrestrials. On-again-off-again Dustin (David Duchovny) and Lauren (Leslie Mann) have the rapport of coparents one moment and the unfamiliarity of long-lost lovers the next. Likewise, the script can’t decide whether director Darren (Fred Armisen) is an indie novice in over his head or an embittered industry lifer. Nothing makes any fucking sense, a frequent complaint during the making of “Cliff Beasts 6” that Apatow tacitly waves away through producer Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz).
Carol raises that very concern after a shot featuring a dinosaur doing a dance led by obligatory social-media personality Krystal (Iris Apatow, illustrating the significant difference between bad acting and a credible portrayal of it), who mostly serves to cue up creaky Gen Z cracks about cancelation and gaslighting. Her presence also occasions the many hard-to-watch TikTok montage interludes, pure padding unforgivable in what should be an 88-minute feature with no business exceeding the two-hour mark. (Ironically, the casting department found Harry Trevaldwyn, clear MVP of the bunch as the on-set compliance officer, doing videos online.) Apatow’s signature looseness — gather some performers that get along, let the cameras roll, see where things go — turns fatal in a format so segmented as to become sketchlike. In the good old days, his disregard for setup-punchline joke construction yielded some cherished riffs. Here, it throws off the rhythm in interminable clips that end at random and trip drunkenly into one another.
The worst part — setting aside the moment where Pedro Pascal pukes and diarrheas himself, or the downpour of vomit from the rest of his costars, or the glowing CGI dicks and balls, or the profoundly upsetting Benedict Cumberbatch deepfake, or the unforgivable squandering of Maria Bakalova’s proven comic talents… Okay, among the top ten worst parts of this whole ill-conceived enterprise is the air of importance, as if Apatow’s giving the beleaguered Netflix subscriber base a much-needed dose of the best medicine in our hour of need. He does and doesn’t know better; as a non-Hollywood-brained teen accompanying her stuntman dad tells Carol, regular folks don’t care about this right now. (We really don’t care now-now, as the viral status quo is increasingly normalized and everybody would prefer to put the paranoia and panic behind them.)
But Apatow can’t shrug off the fundamental tone-deafness of his premise, which ultimately extends a baseline sympathy to A-listers for enjoying luxuries somewhat less fabulous than usual. There’s ego hiding in his good intentions, his motivation to supply the people with some uplift sullied by the assurance that he’s the man for the job. In throwing together his snickering comment on the zeitgeist, he moved with the haste and purpose of a hero springing into action, spurred by crisis to pursue public service. The thing is, no one needed this that badly. [F]