Bubble Boy may not be the least promising movie title of all time, but it must surely rank up there among the top five. How else to explain why one of the funniest, smartest comedies of the last ten years is almost unknown to mass audiences?
Bubble Boy sounds like a dumb teen movie. And yet dumb teen movies often are runaway blockbusters. Bubble Boy wasn’t. Maybe the fact that it isn’t a dumb teen movie accounts for its anonymity. And yet look at the cult status achieved by Napoleon Dynamite, the only other comedy with which Bubble Boy compares as the funniest movie of the decade.
Bubble Boy stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a boy who was born with no immunities to fight off diseases and therefore must live inside a controlled environment. It was my incredible luck to happen upon Bubble Boy within ten days of the first time I saw Donnie Darko. Having seen Brokeback Mountain and The Good Girl in the intervening time since then, I must conclude that either Gyllenhaal himself or someone in his employ has the finest sense for a good screenplay in Hollywood today. I’m willing to follow this young actor anywhere until he stumbles a few times in a row. As menacing and malevolent as he could look as Donnie Darko, as Jimmy in this movie he is all wide-eyed innocence.
I said this is a smart comedy. What I mean is that it’s not just a string of easy sight gags at the expense of the Bubble Boy’s unfortunate condition. Yes, there are plenty of those as well. In fact, I still laugh just thinking about Jimmy running in his portable bubble for the first time. I’m laughing right now as I write this. There are many, many sight gags courtesy of the portable bubble and all of them are hilarious and none of them feel mean-spirited.
In fact, I think it is the innocence of this movie that is its secret. The whole concept of making fun of a person unable to experience the world outside of a controlled environment seems wrong; fortunately, that isn’t what this movie does. In fact, if you compare this film with the “serious” portrayal of the same story in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, an early John Travolta TV movie, you cannot help but come away thinking the comedy makes the boy seem more human.
Part of that credit goes to Gyllenhaal, of course, but the writer and director and co-stars also deserve credit. Because the Bubble Boy isn’t the only person living in a bubble in this film. That is the point, in fact. Jimmy is the only one willing to take the chance to leave his bubble and give himself over to the risk of life. Along the way on his journey to track down the girl that got away, Jimmy comes into contact with a bus ticket salesman who is literally trapped inside a bubble: his ticket office. But Jimmy’s ultra-religious mother also lives in a controlled environment. The members of the Up With People-style singing group/cult live in their own bubble. Dr. Phreak and his freaks on the train live in their own bubble. And if that description isn’t enough to make you want to check this movie, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
Swoosie Kurtz is one of the great unsung character actors of all time and this performance is her masterpiece. She plays the Bubble Boy’s mother, all repressed sexuality gone religious nutcase. (Her relationship with Dr. Phreak is, well, unusual). Kurtz’s ability to move from benign spirituality to hardcore Pat Robertsonesque intolerance is priceless. The unexpected juxtapositions of the mother character carries over to the film at large. The plot basically concerns young Jimmy’s chase across the continent to stop the girl he loves from marrying the wrong man. Along the way he comes across a biker, the cult singing group, Dr. Phreak, an Indian selling ice cream and curry from a truck, two old twins and much, much more, including Fabio! The amazing thing is how they all arrive together at the same place and fit perfectly together. It’s like watching one of those complex Seinfeld plots.
There are surprises and twists, of course, and I won’t ruin them here. I will say, however, that you’ll notice that Bubble Boy’s dad doesn’t have a lot of lines. It’s not because he’s mute and it’s not because he has nothing to say. In fact, he has a few lines toward the end of the film and if I were you, I’d turn up the volume and tell everyone else to hush when he speaks. A man of few words, when he does deign to speak, he speaks the truth. The words of advice he gives to Bubble Boy exemplify the theme of this film, a film that does not deserve the relative obscurity it is currently experiencing.
Although not necessarily a family film – there’s one particularly family-challenged sight gag toward the beginning and a few bad words sprinkled throughout – for the most part it can be viewed by older children. Having said that, I must say that around my house a current running gag involves screaming “500 dollas!!!” in increasing volume. Watch the movie to find out why this makes everyone in the room laugh.