When theatres reopened last summer, several West End musicals incorporated references to the pandemic: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie even featured one character calling her classmate an LFT (lateral flow test) “because you get right up my nose”. Cinema by its nature is slower than theatre to adapt, but face masks have already been seen on screen throughout the Romanian black comedy Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (which won the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival), and in the final scenes of Drive My Car and The Worst Person in the World. Images of deserted nocturnal London taken during lockdown provided a rare moment of interest in Last Night in Soho.
Big-budget Hollywood movies carried on being made at the height of the pandemic, but the first to feature Covid-19 as a plot device is The Bubble, Judd Apatow’s comedy about a group of actors quarantining together at a swanky hotel outside London in summer 2020 prior to shooting a dinosaur sequel called Cliff Beasts 6. The forthcoming Jurassic World Dominion, which happens also to be the sixth instalment of a popular dinosaur franchise, was shot in the UK under Covid-19 restrictions in summer 2020, though any similarities have presumably been cleared in advance by the velociraptors in the Netflix legal department.
The Bubble announces itself as a story of “the brave people who fought heroically to bring distractions to humanity”. These include the spiritually inclined action star (Keegan-Michael Key), who has invented a motivational system with its own bible (“It’s not a religion per se”); an estranged A-list couple (Leslie Mann and David Duchovny); a TikTok star (Iris Apatow) brought on board to appeal to a younger demographic; and the series regular (Karen Gillan) who bailed on the previous Cliff Beasts movie in order to make a science-fiction blockbuster in which Israel and Palestine come together to fight aliens, but is now back in the fold after Jerusalem Rising was rated 4 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Apatow’s loose improvisatory style is as much in evidence as ever, if a little more prone now to montages that can be easily excerpted on social media. There are no fewer than three TikTok interludes (this is nothing if not a movie that cynically knows its audience), as well as one montage showing the characters going nuts in their hotel rooms, which then blurs into a dance sequence only to morph back into yet another hotel room montage.
Despite the paraphernalia of Covid-19 – yes, there is also a nasal swab montage – the movie feels less like a pioneering example of pandemic cinema than another addition to the film-about-filmmaking genre (Day for Night, State and Main, Tropic Thunder). The closest it comes to engaging with the specific inequalities of the pandemic, and the bitter truth that some of us had a better lockdown than others, is during the cutaways to the studio boss (the glorious Kate McKinnon) who keeps beaming in from various sun-kissed corners of the world. Digging deeper into that sort of material would surely have produced a more savage strain of comedy, but Apatow adores his fellow celebrities far too much to ever be more than a velvet fist inside a velvet glove.
If The Bubble feels like old headlines repackaged as breaking news, perhaps that’s because we have already seen something very much like it from the same corner of Hollywood. A bunch of narcissistic actors holed up in one building during what appears to be the end of the world, complete with drug-taking and CGI monsters – doesn’t that describe the 2013 comedy This is the End, co-written and co-directed by Apatow’s regular collaborator Seth Rogen? That picture was so much funnier than The Bubble because it dealt in specifics. Rogen’s cast were playing vile or distorted versions of themselves – Jonah Hill as a solemn buffoon forever boasting about his Oscar nomination, or the formerly angelic Michael Cera as a coked-up demon harassing Rihanna and having sex in the bathroom – whereas Apatow makes do with broad stereotypes.
From the beginning of the pandemic it was unclear whether audiences would want to see what they were going through dramatised in films and television. Haven’t we all had enough Covid-19 for one lifetime? Early efforts to turn confinement into entertainment – such as the abysmal Locked Down, a cringeworthy heist comedy starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway, or Together, starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan – seemed to bear this out. The Bubble hardly whets the appetite for yet more films featuring bored, wealthy characters and jokes about PPE and Zoom.
The main problem is that nothing in Apatow’s film expresses the blood-curdling intersection of smug celebrity cluelessness and global catastrophe more acutely than the three-minute masterpiece that emerged in the first weeks of lockdown. Horror, comedy, Covid-19: it’s all there at a fraction of the length in Gal Gadot’s “Imagine”.