Bubble Boy Is the Happiest Comedy Surprise of the Season; Rat Race Gives It a Run for Its Money

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

What makes
us laugh might–for a minute–liberate us. That’s my defense of
the already controversial Bubble Boy. Some detractors don’t even
like the concept, but it’s one of the rare original comedies to be produced
by a Hollywood studio. Director Blair Hayes and his screenwriters Cinco
Paul and Ken Daurio have fun with the story of a white California youth, Jimmy
Livingston (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is born without immunities. They don’t
press the inherent metaphor for social apprehensiveness, but take the opportunity
to lambaste an array of contemporary shibboleths. No group or sacred cow escapes
Hayes’ mockery; his carnival of characters flouts the sanctimony of middle-class
zealots as well as fringe lunatics. Yet the film is actually more affectionate
than rude. Bubble Boy boasts the ingenuousness special to teen comedies:
exciting mischief and impudence toward authority. But for all Hayes’ sarcasm
it’s never smirky. Surveying a world that was always just on the other
side of Jimmy’s prophylaxis tent and beyond the narrow range prescribed
by his racist, overprotective mother (Swoosie Kurtz), the film radiates good

coming-of-age is all about the thrill of being alive, not the pathos of infirmity.
Protesting parents of actual immuno-deficient children forget that every child
desires experience and freedom; these worrywarts would deprive those kids (and
likely the rest of the world) the pleasure of sharing Jimmy’s thrall. My
guess is that ailing kids might, in fact, relate to Jimmy’s predicament
and cherish his magical mobility, blessed innocence and hilarious misadventures;
perhaps even seeing themselves in Jimmy as he is propelled into a world full
of potential friends (at one point he’s passed among concertgoers like
a beach ball). After all, Jimmy’s part of a familiar tradition associated
with Alice, Dorothy, Huck Finn and Otto in Repo Man.

It’s a
sign of how far we’ve gotten from the postpunk anarchism of Repo Man,
Alex Cox’s 1984 above-ground underground classic, that some people today
don’t get the joke of Bubble Boy’s social satire. Accustomed
to the grim family-values moralism implicit in films like American Beauty,
they can’t relate to Bubble Boy’s derisive energy or its leftfield
humor, which is much more effective than the sour Middle-American put-downs
of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hayes seems a pure comic spirit; he appears
to have no agenda other than spotlighting the eccentricities in our culture
and enjoying them. Touchstone Pictures reasonably anticipates an openminded
culture understanding Jimmy’s agog perspective. Bubble Boy is basically
another view of the mainstream but blithely askew; celebrating the culture’s
healthy lack of insularity, its welcoming heterogeneity. (A July 30 BusinessWeek
report on "Racism in the Workplace" noted that "minorities’
share of the workforce grew over the decade, which could have led to a corresponding
rise in clashes.") Americans of clashing ethnicities, contrasting capabilities,
countermanding faiths and varied experiences make Bubble Boy modern Hollywood’s
most enthusiastically democratic comedy. When Jimmy meets a Hindu Ice-Cream-and-Curry
salesman, Hayes caps the sequence by showing a white kid and Indian kid running
after the jingle-playing truck waving dollar bills–the former screaming
for ice cream, the latter for curry.

Bubble Boy
reconfigures a repository of American pop absurdity–characters watch tv
broadcasts of Land of the Lost, Mr. Bubble and Bubblicious commercials
and Don Ho doing his signature tune "Tiny Bubbles." Yes, the cultural
coincidences occur in tiny, surreal, iridescent clusters. Jimmy’s lonely
jerrybuilt quest on a scooter should remind cognizant viewers of David Lynch’s
The Straight Story–a fine film also about an odyssey and pursuit
of family and community–but this is the cheeky response Lynch’s artsiness
deserves. And Hayes’ impudence also gets poetic: in his bubble suit Jimmy
bounces across the desert with a vulture flapping in pursuit–an image as
timeless as Chaplin’s entrance followed by a bear in The Gold Rush.

This humor
comes under the radar and in surprise attacks. Some subliminal cultural assumptions
are exposed. When Jimmy tells Mexican biker Slim (Danny Trejo) that he left
home to stop Chloe (Marley Shelton), the girl next door, from marrying another
guy, he explains, "I want to have a relationship that lasts longer than
10 minutes." Slim sympathizes, saying, "I had one of those. After
10 minutes I threw her ass out." That’s when I heard a child in the
audience chuckle–either grasping the unsentimental joke or appreciating
its expert timing. Bubble Boy’s satirical touches (such as Jimmy
innocently addressing people as vatas, or bitches, unaware of the cultural
deprecation) comment on the super-naive or super-insensitive way Americans bounce
through life. Gyllenhaal’s wide-eyed, wild-haired wonderment (he looks
like k.d. lang crossed with Jon Stewart) is perfect. He gauges the childish
temper of the social fragmentation everyone laments but few have resolved. And
when meeting Pippy, the twin brother of senior citizen Pappy (both played by
Patrick Cranshaw), he gets to deliver a cheerful tongue-twister too good to
spoil here.

In Preston
Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, cranky William Demarest
told a law man who helps him out of a jam, "That’s mighty white of
you brother." America’s finest satirists–from Sturges to the
Farrelly brothers–know the best way to represent the country is to highlight
and define its plurality. Bubble Boy bursts the cocoon of social restriction
and cultural piety (both the ice cream salesman and Jimmy’s mother have
their pieties shaken). The key to this is partly Oedipal–Jimmy breaks out
of his mother’s suffocating conservative influence. By asserting independence,
Jimmy risks his own safety just as Hayes risks offending the literal-minded,
but Bubble Boy’s benevolent worldliness and unexpected wonders provide
a groovy payoff. In the flower-power van full of cultists singing to Fabio or
an Hasidic Siamese twin conjoined to an acrobat in a leopard skin costume, Bubble
proposes a recognizably lunatic cosmos. "Don’t live in regret,"
Slim teaches Jimmy; even a caravan of circus performers (as in Lynch’s
The Elephant Man) bears a motto offering comic humanist advice: "Phreakin’
People Out Is Our Business." Bubble Boy’s crazy comedy reproves
the white solidarity of Sturges’ day and the alienation of Alex Cox’s.
Dissipating social anxieties is always the right thing for a comedy to do.


directed by Jerry Zucker

In the current
efflorescence of manic comedies, Bubble Boy is the happiest surprise
of the season–and that’s saying something given good competition like
Osmosis Jones and Rat Race. In Rat Race director Jerry
Zucker finally returns to his forte–silly comedy like Airplane!,
not silly melodrama like Ghost. You can tell he’s serious about
filmmaking because the apparent care and craft make the visual gags more effective
than Ghost. It’s hard to name a topper: Is it Vince Vieluf and Seth
Green as a duo of greedy brothers suddenly scuffling for safety while a monster
truck drops toward them in lazy, suspenseful–and hilarious–slow motion?
Or is it any one of cinematographer Thomas Ackerman’s wide land- and skyscapes?
The ecstatically clear vistas give Zucker’s comedy Cloudcuckooland gracefulness.

Zucker isn’t
original like Blair Hayes; Rat Race retools the basic formula of It’s
a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
. A Las Vegas casino manager (John Cleese) arranges
for six people to participate in a $2 million treasure hunt as amusement for
a select group of wealthy gamblers who monitor the experiment. Obviously the
plot ridicules greed, but Zucker keeps wild setpieces rolling off the assembly
line. The cast is prime: Whoopi Goldberg in gold hair and purple lips (she does
a mother-daughter act with Lanei Chapman); Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy play
a Jewish family mistakenly visiting the (Klaus) Barbie Museum; Cuba Gooding
Jr. goes bonkers amidst a busload of Lucy impersonators; and attorney Gloria
Allred parodies herself–pricelessly–as an ambulance chaser.

Rat Race
expertly balances caricature and satire. There’s no better test of that
than sitting through Kevin Smith’s calamitous version of an all-star comedy,
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. At what? The Star Wars generation
gets to congratulate itself on its own facetiousness as Ben Affleck, Matt Damon,
Jason Lee and others help Smith (and costar Jason Mewes, doing their Jersey
stoner shtick from Clerks) piss on their own bad indie movies and those
of their betters. Smith rips off Cheech and Chong as well as Bill and Ted, bringing
Internet slob comedy to the big screen while acting superior to professional
comedies like Rat Race. That delusion suggests half of what is wrong
with movies today where temerity–not skill, craft or feeling–passes
for legitimate filmmaking.

It’d be
disgraceful if Rat Race, Bubble Boy and Osmosis Jones got
overshadowed by Kevin Smith’s big publicity machine. With the exception
of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, these three films represent our era’s
best comic talents operating at joyous peaks. I don’t include Woody Allen’s
Curse of the Jade Scorpion among the fun flicks. Its central hypnosis
ploy, in which Allen as an insurance investigator is tricked into falling in
love with his hateful coworker Helen Hunt, is just another bald Fellini steal,
this time of Nights of Cabiria (like Purple Rose of Cairo copied
The White Sheik and Sweet and Lowdown copied La Strada).
Each scene moves with the speed of the Empire State Bldg. Not even Allen’s
"It depends on what I’m eating" joke to sexpot Charlize Theron
is bawdy. The laughs are on autopilot; there are no surprises left.

The ingenuity
Allen once brought to What’s Up, Tiger Lily? reappears in the mostly
animated Osmosis Jones–the second of the three comedies that give
the most fun this summer. Think of those biology textbook transparencies as
if reimagined by Chuck Jones. But this is a Farrelly Bros. comedy–about
the muck inside us all. It’s dazzlingly inventive–full of political
double entendres–as the Farrellys (working with Bill Murray for the first
time since the superb Kingpin) go inside Murray’s body and turn
ectomorphic sloppiness into assorted biological gags. It’s what the 60s
Fantastic Voyage should have been. Chris Rock voices Murray’s alter
ego/immune system–a chance connection with Bubble Boy. Could these
three comedies on community, greed and the subconscious be telling us what’s
really going on in America? Can’t think of any recent dramas that feel
more authentic.