- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

"Bubble Boy," I fear, could have the makings of a tasteless juggernaut, primed to rally the same audience that felt outrageous farce had been invented overnight in "There's Something About Mary" and then just as hilariously reinvented in "American Pie." The catch is that the filmmakers may have created a tactical problem for themselves by ignoring certain real-life aspects of their gimmick, which imagines a teen-ager with a delicate immune system, Jake Gyllenhaal as Jimmy Livingston, setting off in a bubble suit of his own fabrication to prevent the wedding of next-door sweetheart Chloe (Marley Shelton), headed for a Niagara Falls ceremony with a creep named Mark.

The plot outline is cribbed rather shamelessly from the last stage of "The Graduate," aggravated by the minor detail of Chloe's seeming a premature bride for any potential suitor. The theft is acknowledged gleefully in a shot that re-creates a famous image from "The Graduate," with Swoosie Kurtz, cast as Jimmy's fanatically overprotective mother, simulating Dustin Hoffman's original pose.

The boy-in-the-bubble angle gives the movie a distinctive pictorial element, reinforced by Mr. Gyllenhaal's ability to sustain a wistfully naive performance inside the transparent shell and by the exceptional skill of cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski at lighting its battered and bruised but always trickily reflective surface.

The premise, however, is conceived and executed in bad faith: Jimmy's maladies are revealed to be a big expedient misunderstanding. Threatening his delicate condition becomes acceptable in this ridiculous context because his delicacy is a fraud. That suits the convenience of the filmmakers, of course, but they have managed to antagonize people who deal with authentic immune disorders. It's difficult to argue that the jokers don't deserve the resentment.

"Bubble Boy" is impossible to defend on any grounds apart from absolute and coldblooded humorous license: Anything is good for a laugh, and it's tough luck if your affliction or cause is the one being mocked.

We have reached a point at which "outrageous" comic provocation is so commonplace and copycat that it's virtually synonymous with "worthless" and "complacent." The cavalier and brutal sight gags that proliferate in "Bubble Boy" reflect this anything-goes, shock-effect triteness.

Nevertheless, director Blair Hayes sustains an undeniably rollicking momentum that could pulverize doubts and inhibitions, rather like a speeding truck pulverizes a prop cow during one of the more emphatic and unsightly sight gags.

I think Mr. Hayes gives tasteless slapstick the benefit of the doubt more often than he should, but he does know how to execute sight gags with pinpoint timing and impact.

In fact, in terms of cinematic craftsmanship, "Bubble Boy" has more in common with Jerry Zucker's "Rat Race," which also excels at headlong, cross-country gags — and can't resist cows as helpless slapstick props, although the level of abuse is much gentler than the sadistic rollover staged by Mr. Hayes.

At no point does "Bubble Boy" risk mocking anything that might qualify as a prevailing sacred cow in the Hollywood pasture. Perhaps the most characteristic target is a squeaky-wholesome evangelical group called Bright and Shiny, presumably a burlesque of Up With People, which hasn't been prominent for a while now.

It's a curious delusion of such movies that reactionary boogeymen, or boogey juveniles, never change.

The antagonisms that became cliches during the Nixon regime get to last forever, at least among humorists who can't function without them.

Mr. Hayes probably could get along without them, but it will take a different sort of script to encourage his liberation.


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