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Bubble Boy

Director: Blair Hayes
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Marley Shelton, Swoosie Kurtz, Danny Trejo, Verne Troyer, Beetlejuice, Fabio, Dave Sheridan, John Carroll Lynch, Patrick Cranshaw

(Touchstone; US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969; 2001)

Take a Number

Spoiler alert: This review gives up the film’s entirely annoying finale.

The other morning I saw Carol Ann Demaret, mother of the original “bubble boy,” on Today. She appeared with her son’s doctor, and she looked stern as she explained her concern that the new film Bubble Boy would defile the experience and memory of her son, who suffered from an immune deficiency so severe that he spent his brief life (12 years) in a germ-free, plastic environment. Though she hadn’t seen the film, Mrs. Demaret had seen a trailer on tv, and was appalled to see the titular character bouncing down the street in his bubble, being hit by a bus, and generally being the butt of repeated slapstick assaults. In defense of the film, director Blair Hayes called it a summer comedy with a “great heart,” in which the bubble boy is the hero.


Having seen the movie, I can say that Hayes is not lying. Bubble boy Jimmy Livingston (Jake Gyllenhaal) is easily the most sympathetic and definitely the least unpleasant character in sight. And herein lies the irony of the anti-Bubble Boy campaign mounted by Mrs. Demaret and the Immune Deficiency Foundation: when it comes to being offended by this movie, they will have to take a number. Written by Cinco Paul (who played a school counselor in Dude, Where’s My Car?) and Ken Daurio, in slavish imitation of the Farrelly-Tom Green-Jackass-Andy Dick bodily-function humor model, Bubble Boy has nothing but mean things to say about everyone. And I mean, everyone. While Mrs. Demaret has been understandably dismayed by Disney’s demonstrated lack of concern for her feelings (the company has refused to meet with her or to include a note on where to get information on immune deficiency in the film’s closing credits), the company’s stance makes basic marketing sense: she’s generating free publicity for Bubble Boy. All this week before the film’s opening, CNN has been airing her complaint alongside press junket footage of the very sweet-looking Gyllenhaal, also defending the film’s “heart.”


This much-mentioned heart, however, is less visible in the actual film than other body parts, namely, penises and breasts. Bubble Boy spends only a few minutes on Jimmy’s presexual life, via his voice-overed recollections of the “big birds” (nuns) hovering over his teeny, plastic-encased self and a couple of short scenes where his mother (Swoosie Kurtz) feeds him cross-shaped protein cookies, windexes his bubble, and reads him stories where every character who steps outside his bubble dies instantly. But such preliminaries only set up the focus on sex jokes. I suppose that there are cases to be made for the metaphorical possibilities here, and the “burgeoning sexuality” premise is hardly new, borrowed from the notoriously sentimental tv movie starring John Travolta, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976), but Bubble Boy is at base just another teen-boy-on-a-road-trip-to-find-true-love movie. The immune deficiency angle is just that, an angle.


The object of Jimmy’s affection is his next-door neighbor, vivacious, none-too-bright blond Chloe (Marley Shelton). They share a brief montage of precious teen-love moments, she on the outside of the bubble, he on the inside (they dance, play guitar, sunbathe, and watch their favorite tv show, Land of the Lost, which is, of course, mightily symbolic for Jimmy’s own predicament). All the while, Jimmy’s mom ferociously vacuums in the background. Fickle Chloe loves Jimmy, but she needs a boy she can “hug,” so she chooses the nearest one, an idiotic and wholly unattractive “rock musician” named Mark (Dave Sheridan), who tells Jimmy about his plans to deflower his bride and smokes a cigarette in the “clean room” where Jimmy’s bubble is housed, but other than that, seems harmlessly mean and stupid. You see how the politics of this “outrageous” comedy are completely conventional: Chloe’s prince is the really nice boy next door and mom is the villain (to a dreadful extent: it’s eventually revealed that she has lied about Jimmy’s condition since he was four years old and miraculously recovered his immune system: he’s been living in a bubble because mom’s crazy, not to mention anti-Semitic).


It’s only after Chloe and Mark leave for Niagra Falls, where they will be married in three days, that Jimmy decides he must follow, to tell her that he loves her and stop this unholy alliance. A lot of shlocky business occurs on the road: this is where Jimmy’s mobile bubble is hit by a few vehicles and he encounters a series of pathetically obnoxious caricatures. The first is a busload of “Bright and Shiny” christian-ish cultists, led by Fabio. He also meets an ancient cab driver (Joseph Patrick Cranshaw) seeking his lost love named “Poonanny,” and Slim (Danny Trejo), a Latino biker, who advises Jimmy to pursue Chloe at all costs, because he lost his true love (named “Wildfire” and memorialized by the song on the soundtrack), and has regretted it ever since.


Slim gives Jimmy a ride on his motorcycle to Las Vegas, where they plan to win enough money to get Jimmy to Niagra Falls. This, um, doesn’t pan out. And so, Jimmy meets some more oddballs, including a Hindi ice cream-and-curry vendor who suffers the indignity of running over a cow with his truck and having its guts sprayed all over him more than once; an absolutely horrific stereotype of an Asian strip club barker (who thought this was funny?); and a train-car full of circus freaks (including Beetlejuice as the Pinhead and Geoffrey Arend as Flipperboy), whom Jimmy inadvertently rescues from their abusive boss, Mr. Phreak (Verne Troyer), thus earning their undying loyalty, and of course, sense of identification. I think this identification has something to do with that “great heart” the filmmakers keep talking about: everyone Jimmy meets feels out of place somehow and seeks a way to fit in, even with that one special someone. But where exactly is it that they might want to fit in? And by whom might they want to be accepted?


Of course, these can’t be considered serious questions in the context of a Farrelly-wannabe. But the context itself (which is all about wanting to fit in, isn’t it?) raises relatively more interesting questions. And one of them is not “Is there no limit to the ugliness of bodily function comedies?” Finding and pushing beyond such a limit is precisely the concern of such comedies: as soon as you find it, it’s become a non-limit, by definition of the genre. And so, you might be moved to think more carefully about what’s at stake in the genre, what it has to do with the present moment, whom it’s riling and why, and to whom it is appealing. For the one thing that is absolutely clear is that these many similar films would not be falling all over themselves to get into theaters if they were not making mad money.


The pretend answer—as massaged by Hayes, above—is that such films service viewers who feel reassured in seeing an outcast and loser succeed, which I guess means getting the girl: she’s prize, you know, nothing more. But what kind of a prize is she, exactly? Chloe can’t speak her mind (mainly because she doesn’t seem to have one), and yearns for something she can’t quite put her finger on. Just so you know where that finger should be, the movie provides a scene where Chloe, bored and fretful in some Niagra Falls cabin, channel-surfs and comes upon a series of bubble images—a Mr. Bubbles commercial, another for Bubble-icious bubble gum, and Don Ho singing “Tiny Bubbles.” She cocks her head and she looks like she’s suddenly got an idea. Ouch.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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