Back in 2020, the film industry was in such a tizz over whether the pandemic might destroy cinema forever, it started to reach for extreme solutions, like convincing viewers that seeing Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was worth the risk of contracting a potentially deadly illness. And even though viewing figures for disease-themed entertainment such as the 2011 thriller Contagion skyrocketed, producers were slow to make movies about the impact of Covid-19 itself.
Two years on, there have been several documentaries and a handful of fiction works (ensemble drama The Same Stormhorror movie Host and Bo Burnham’s magnificent, sui generis musical comedy special Inside). The trickle of content has been as slow as Openreach’s expansion of fiber-to-premises broadband to regional areas. (Ask me how I know.)
Netflix’s The Bubblethe latest comedy feature from Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Trainwreck), is the first biggish-budget mainstream comedy about surviving the pandemic. It’s likely it will not be either the last or the best, but it’s funnier and smarter than you might expect. Set largely at a London-adjacent hotel and studio where a mostly American cast and crew have been assembled in the enclosed bubble to shoot the sixth installment of a lame, CGI-heavy franchise called Cliff Beasts, it’s essentially a workplace comedy. Think The Office or M * A * S * H but with a deadly plague running rampant just beyond the gates.
Most of the cast know each other well, perhaps too intimately in the case of recently divorced couple Dustin (David Duchovny) and Lauren (Leslie Mann). There’s also anxious ingénue Carol (Karen Gillan, a veteran in real life of Guardians of the Galaxy and the Jumanji reboots), who does not want to be in the film but needs the money after a nearly career-destroying role playing a half-Israeli, half-Palestinian heroine fighting aliens, a gag all the funnier – like many of the film’s best – for the short sharp shock of its duration.
Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian) represents another huge plus point, playing an ethnically indeterminate character actor with a penchant for overripe accents (perhaps not unlike Pascal himself), who is besotted with hotel employee Maria Bakalova (of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm). Eventually, driven to distraction by an endless cycle of quarantines and ease-ups, bullied by the producers and addled with drugs, the cast start to lose it and plot escape, with predictably messy results.
There are characters and storylines that do not really work. Fred Armisen’s portrait of a Sundance-winning director who has sold out to Hollywood is oddly bland. And Iris Apatow’s TikTok celebrity Krystal Kris is a crass caricature of Gen-Z vapidness, although the dance sequences she leads are a gas. The script by Judd Apatow and Pam Brady (a South park veteran) would have benefited from more satirical bite, perhaps touching on various governments’ muddled handling of guidelines. But maybe that will be the job of another movie. I’m looking at you, Armando Iannucci.
On Netflix from April 1