Bubble Boy (2001): United States – directed by Blair Hayes
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains bad language, crude sexual humor, fake violence
Bubble Boy begins as a fascinating study into a repressive upbringing, somewhat like the Australian feature Bad Boy Bubby [review here]. A mother attempts to protect her son from the evils of the world, but what havoc will such a decision wreak when the child discovers that there is more beyond the bubble?
Jake Gyllenhaal, just a couple years after making the slightly more serious October Sky [review here], goes nearly full retard as “some sort of bubble boy.” His name is Jimmy, and we discover early that he was born with no immunities. His protective Christian mother (“Pushing Daises'” Swoosie Kurtz) raises him in a germ-free sphere in their suburban California home, alongside a silent and downtrodden father (John Carroll Lynch). She teaches him about the world, reading him fairy tales which always end in the hero leaving the bubble and dying.
Trouble ensues when a pretty girl moves in next door, arousing strange feelings in Jimmy. His mother instructs him to recite the Pledge of Allegiance until these evil feelings subside, but even she cannot stem the relationship that develops between Jimmy and Chloe (Marley Shelton). At first Chloe acts out of pity, visiting Jimmy to see what he is. Eventually, though, she learns to like him.
Here’s where the film veers away from the psychological study of the effects of a repressive upbringing on an adolescent child, and heads toward romantic comedy territory. Chloe soon becomes engaged to Mark (Dave Sheridan), the same jerk she dated through high school. She leaves for Niagara Falls to get married, and Jimmy doesn’t manage to express his feelings before she leaves.
A sudden wave of courage sweeps over Jimmy and he decides to strike out, cross country, in an attempt to stop the wedding. Along the way he has his first experiences with the real world and meets a variety of odd characters. Verne Troyer plays Dr. Phreak, head of a trainful of sideshow freaks who soon learn to treat Jimmy as one of their own. Meanwhile, a cult of smiling and happy people (led by Fabio, in a cameo appearance) believe him to be the true incarnation (or something). A Mexican biker named Slim (Danny Trejo) helps Jimmy out and teaches him the value of living without regret. A Hindu ice cream salesman (Brian George) helps Jimmy travel some of the 2500-odd miles he has to cover.
The film doesn’t mind being mildly offensive to most every religious and ethnic group, with a sharp (but predictable) crack at Jews, some generic Hindu jokes and Mexican stereotypes, and a lengthier dig at ultra-conservative Christian ideals. None of it is effective or brutal enough to be disturbing, however. Bubble Boy is, in essence, a fairly standard romantic comedy with a few teen sex comedy undertones.
I’m not familiar with the original The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, starring John Travolta, but apparently that venture is based on a true story. Bubble Boy seems to merely than trade the tragedy of the situation for comedy. The film, while technically acceptable (the directing and editing aren’t too shabby) is drawn with broad strokes, leaving little to the imagination and making the comedy rather obvious. Gyllenhaal jumps admirably into the performance, though he and the supporting cast are often a bit heavy handed.
Bubble Boy wouldn’t aspire to be named a great film, and it isn’t. It’s generic and conventional, carefully following all the rules of the romantic comedy. The only catch is that the protagonist lives in a bubble. In spite of this, I must admit that I sort of enjoyed the film. It made me laugh a few times, something many romantic comedies can’t achieve. The cast is eager and heartfelt, and I didn’t avidly hate any of the characters or actors. It was fun to see many familiar faces randomly show up, and the soundtrack is upbeat and includes Blink 182, whom I must also confess to enjoying. As far as dumb comedies go, you could do a whole lot worse than Bubble Boy, and who knows, perhaps you might actually enjoy it even if you aren’t normally a fan of comedies.