**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Swoosie Kurtz, Marley Shelton, Danny Trejo
screenplay by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio
directed by Blair Hayes
by Walter Chaw At its giant heart, Bubble Boy attempts the Herculean task of convincing us that the best parts of America died with the forced naiveté of "Land of the Lost". Single-handedly, the film tries to resurrect the cheesiness of that awful Kroft Brothers' show that held my generation transfixed after Saturday morning cartoons, allowing its titular protagonist to play a mean electric guitar version of its theme song (provided by Dweezil Zappa) while featuring a dream sequence cobbled together from outtakes from that late, lamented prehistoric Neverland. If this strikes you as a strange thing for a movie to try, consider that Bubble Boy is also the finest Todd Solondz film that Solondz never made.
Jimmy (a magnificent Jake Gyllenhaal) is a wide-eyed naïf in the Tobey Maguire mold. Born without natural immunities, he's taken home at the age of four in a bubble to a suburban fantasy of faceless California tract development. Glowered over by a fundamentalist wack-job of a mother (an inspired Swoosie Kurtz) who makes Jesus fish and crucifix fibre cookies that won't offend Jimmy's delicate innards, Jimmy, once fourteen rolls around, begins to notice Chloe (lovely, saucer-eyed Marley Shelton), the girl next door who acrobatically washes cars and provokes Jimmy's first erection. What's a pathologically sheltered boy to do but attack his penis with a baseball bat and the Pledge of Allegiance?
Unable to connect with Jimmy through his bubble, though they spend the next few years chumming around, Chloe hooks up with a ridiculous paramour and hightails it to Niagara Falls to marry the jerk. Gathering his courage, Jimmy constructs a portable bubble to the strains of the Rocky theme song and takes to the road in an effort to thwart the ignoble union, Graduate-style.
What Bubble Boy's structure and visual sensibility remind of most is Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and true to the gravitation towards misfit protagonists--beautiful blonde lady loves and bands of grotesque allies and villains--of that film's director, Tim Burton, Bubble Boy touches base with a children's chorale cult, the Bright and Shinys (their leader is, of course, Fabio); a motorcycle gang led by the ubiquitous Danny Trejo; an Indian ice cream and curry truck driver (Brian George); and a collection of circus freaks "owned" by Dr. Phreak (Verne Troyer), whom Jimmy's mom can't resist treating as a child. Bubble Boy's joyful inability to respect politically correct boundaries has led to a severe negative backlash, yet what it accomplishes is what Spike Lee attempted with the humourless Bamboozled and what Solondz tackles in Happiness. It's a deceptively brilliant film that questions the hypocrisy governing human interaction, reaching its symbolic pinnacle in a quiet scene where the bubble boy has a conversation with a man in a glass booth.
By no means does Bubble Boy carry through on its considerable promise: Ultimately too much time is spent on falling-down gags, bubble bounciness gags, and giant fight scenes that are notable more for their decibel level and chaos than for the forwarding of plot and the honouring of trope. When it works, though (as when Swoosie Kurtz dedicatedly condescends to Troyer, or when she prays for an unhelpful 9-1-1 operator to get "nut cancer"), it becomes something trenchant and valuable: an essay on the ways in which political correctness have created an atmosphere of dangerously false piety and a deepening of class and racial divides. Speaking as an Asian man (and addressing a small portion of the popular backlash), I have far more problem with the portrayal of Asians in stuff like Sixteen Candles, The Goonies, and The Phantom Menace than I do with the small band of Chinese folks in Bubble Boy who scream "five hundred dollars" in an ecstasy of excitement in a mud-wrestling joint.
There's a large difference between characters caricatured out of laziness and casual racism and characters that exist in a caustic satire of our paternalistic insincerity. While not the important film it could have been, Bubble Boy is an often funny, sometimes hilarious, and occasionally ingenious piece that squanders its strongest moments but at least has the courage to attempt strong moments. It and Shallow Hal are the two biggest comedic surprises of 2001, while Gyllenhaal is a talent to watch.
Buena Vista's anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 DVD transfer of Bubble Boy is beautiful. It's free of any hint of artifacting, the saturation is vibrant (particularly in the last half, where the film's colour palette erupts in garish comic-panel vibrancy), and its black levels are spot on. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix makes good use of atmospheric sounds; a scene in which a row of motorcycles is crushed by a school bus is especially nice.The hilarious Seventies soundtrack receives a full treatment and the dialogue comes through clean and crisp.
A feature-length commentary provided by first-time director Blair Hayes and Gyllenhaal hints around the controversy attached to the film while providing a few unusual comedic flairs. At approximately the forty-minute mark, a mock-scuffle breaks out between the two, ending with Gyllenhaal whimpering and Hayes shouting out in victory. It's pretty funny. Both justifiably laud Kurtz's performance and each seems to have a good sense that they have a solid product on their hands even though opportunities might have been missed. A 12-minute featurette called "Building a Better Bubble Suit" provides an interesting look into the process behind constructing a large prop for a well-budgeted film, and a six-part "Director's Diary" shows some B-reel footage narrated journal-style by Hayes. A two-minute slideshow-style production design gallery of sketches (which resemble Jon J. Muth's illustrations for the old "Moonshadow" comic), a two-minute animated storyboard sequence for the Niagara Falls set-piece, a dumb music video for the Bright and Shinys containing clips from Bubble Boy, and a trailer for the Kirsten Dunst vehicle Crazy/Beautiful round out the satisfying presentation. Originally published: February 5, 2002.