Bubble Boy (2001)
The list of films with great potential that end up at the bottom of the barrel are too numerous to list. One of the major ones is the movie Bubble Boy. The film was a spoof of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. That movie starred John Travolta and was first broadcast in 1976, the same year that Travolta had his first substantial movie role with Carrie. The TV movie would get four Emmy nominations and, along with Carrie, would be the start of a winning streak for Travolta. While Travolta’s clout has lessened in recent years, it’s not hard to see why he was arguably the best of the best for a time.
Bubble Boy, on the other hand, is such a misfire all around that it should be considered a medical nightmare.
Our story begins with our title character, Jimmy Livingston, as a baby being transported through a hospital in a plastic bubble because he was born without immunities. He’s being pushed along by a nun who Jimmy’s narration describes as a bird.
Jimmy is officially brought home at age four, living in a sterilized dome in his bedroom. His Bible-thumping mother (Swoozie Kurtz) wastes no time ensuring that her stamp is on him so that Jimmy is forever pure. Her tactics include reading her own version of Rapunzel where the title princess dies in the end after escaping from her bubble. She also makes him cookies in the shape of such religious symbols as crucifixes and the Jesus fish, and teaches him that Native Americans willingly moved to reservations to build casinos and “stay out of the white man’s way”. Mom has also told Jimmy that Land of the Lost is the only TV series in existence (well, at least she didn’t pick Andromeda).
Oh, and where is Jimmy’s dad (John Carroll Lynch)? The only times we see him are when he actually attempts to show his son that there’s more to life than what his mom has told him. This is why Mom goes apeshit on Dad when she sees Jimmy on a bike Dad gave him.
By age 16, Jimmy (now played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is playing the electric guitar and quickly becoming smitten with new neighbor Chloe (Marley Shelton). His mom is onto this, of course, and quickly discourages it by reading to Jimmy that Pinocchio died after escaping his plastic bubble and touching “the whore next door”. Soon, the presence of Chloe causes Jimmy to get his first erection, which freaks him out. His mom states that the way to get rid of something as horrible as this is to recite the Pledge of Allegiance until it goes away.
Despite the insults thrown at Jimmy by her sleazy boyfriend Mark (Dave Sheridan), Chloe decides one day to go to Jimmy’s house to make friends with him. His dad is clearly all for this, as he simply invites her in and returns his attention to his newspaper while laughing at whatever he’s reading.
When they officially meet, Jimmy quickly tells Chloe that he knows her as “the whore next door”. When she asks who told her that, Jimmy says his mom. To which Chloe replies that she’s actually more of a bitch than a whore. No one can say Chloe can’t roll with the punches.
They bond over their shared love of Land of the Lost, and soon, we see them spending time together playing guitar and sunbathing. Jimmy’s mom apparently doesn’t mind this new development, as she just vacuums around Chloe, even though she’s surely corrupting Jimmy by wearing a bikini in front of him.
One night, Chloe arrives drunk and attempts to get into Jimmy’s bubble (in every sense of the word). But she thankfully passes out before that can happen. Jimmy then finds out that Chloe is dating Mark (yes, the guy who insulted Jimmy). This eventually leads to Chloe announcing her engagement to Mark, with the wedding set to happen in three days in Niagara Falls.
When she asks Jimmy if this is the right thing to do, Jimmy replies by telling her to take back the pet guinea pig she once gave him (and, yes, the little guy is encased in his own bubble). Chloe angrily takes it and leaves behind a present she made for Jimmy, and then darts off.
Jimmy looks at Chloe’s gift, which is a snow globe with the message “I Love You!” So, she’s set to marry one guy, even though she clearly loves another? (Ironically, in real life, Ms. Shelton was later caught playing tonsil hockey with her Planet Terror co-star Josh Brolin, even though she’s married to Bubble Boy producer Beau Flynn.) Well, Chloe’s inability to marry someone she loves prompts Jimmy to go to Niagara Falls to stop the wedding. To accomplish this, Jimmy builds a special bubble suit (how he learned to do something like this is anyone’s guess, unless Land of the Lost had its equivalent of Scotty), while Bill Conti’s classic music from Rocky plays in the background. Hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
Our hero’s odyssey begins with Jimmy going to a bus depot, where he tells the attendant (Zack Galifinakis) that he has to get to Niagara Falls, but unfortunately, he has no money on him. He then gets hit by a bus full of members of an Up With People-like singing group that turns out to be a religious cult, led by Fabio, of all people. The cultists soon toss him off their bus after he laughs at their beliefs.
However, the group changes their tune when Fabio shows them ancient cave drawings of their messiah, describing him as the “round one”. They set out to find Jimmy again so they don’t burn in hell for rejecting him, though frankly, if I were them, I’d worry more about agreeing to do this movie.
Back at the homestead, Jimmy’s mother can’t get help from the police about her missing son. So it seems Plan B is to get Jimmy’s dad to write a fake ransom note. It states that Jimmy will be held captive by “the Jews” until they get paid $100,000. Jimmy’s mom goes apeshit on his dad again, but the joke is that she’s only outraged because “the Jews” would want a lot more than $100,000.
Next, Jimmy encounters a biker named Slim (Danny Trejo). They hit it off and exchange their life stories, including the loves they lost, and Slim talks about a woman named “Wildfire” who broke his heart, which is of course accompanied by the ’70s song of the same name. They then head off to Las Vegas to earn money. Fabio’s cult also arrives in Vegas and is promptly threatened by Slim, who gets his motorcycle crushed by their bus for his trouble.
In the midst of this chaos, Jimmy obtains a scooter and continues his journey. After a brief run-in with his parents, he winds up in a train occupied by a traveling freak show, which includes (among others) Wack Pack member Beetlejuice in a rare film role. Jimmy then meets their leader Dr. Phreak (Verne Troyer), who beats Jimmy up with a bar after being called “mini”. I swear the only thing that could make this movie worse now is if Mike Myers appeared to complement its disgusting sense of humor with his own.
Jimmy manages to KO the not-so-good doctor. His freak show troupe asks if they can go with him, a request that Jimmy respectfully declines.
Dr. Phreak is soon found and subsequently cared for by Jimmy’s parents. Jimmy’s mom then calls Chloe, who’s naturally watching Land of the Lost, and tells her that Jimmy is on his way to stop her wedding, and blames Chloe for exposing Jimmy to the horrors the world has to offer (when the horrors she has to offer are more preferable, I guess). After Jimmy’s mom hangs up, Chloe has a “what was that all about?” look on her face. Well, doll face, you just ran off to marry a sleazebag, leaving Jimmy behind with a gift saying you love him. You do the math.
Jimmy finds himself in a restaurant, where he meets an Indian ice cream man named Pushpop (Brian George). The patrons are harassing Pushpop, but then they see Jimmy, and they all panic when he explains he doesn’t have immunities. This proclamation, I must add, is interpreted by the crowd as “He’s got munities!” Okay… Native Americans, Jews, and now Southerners. This movie is definitely on a roll with its insults.
Pushpop agrees to take Jimmy to Niagara Falls. Jimmy then has a Land of the Lost-esque nightmare about losing Chloe because he doesn’t have immunities. His anguished cries upon awakening cause the ice cream man to lose control of his truck and hit a cow. With that, we now add Hindus to the list of groups insulted by this film when Pushpop kneels in the presence of the roadkill and begins praying for forgiveness. He then politely tells Jimmy to piss off by giving him ice cream, and assuring him it doesn’t contain germs, because it’s “frozen”.
For the next few scenes, we get painful intercutting of Slim and the others pursuing Jimmy on the same road, spreading the poor cow’s guts over the asphalt, while Pushpop claims he’s going to hell. Believe me, that cow is the lucky one.
Jimmy next finds himself at a casino. It’s here that we now add Chinese people to the insult list when the casino’s proprietor loudly asks Jimmy “you wantta win 500 dollar?” After playing along, Jimmy realizes that winning this money involves mud wrestling with bikini-clad girls, because when it’s your job to insult your own ethnic group, you make your own fun.
Jimmy wins the money and is now finishing his journey in a taxi driven by a really old guy named Pappy. But when they get close to New York, Pappy apparently dies behind the wheel overnight, and Jimmy is forced to abandon the moving car in another lame comedy scene.
After getting to a telephone, Jimmy tries to call Chloe, but reaches Mark, who tells him to forget about being with her. This leads to Jimmy accepting defeat as he’s reunited with his parents (whose car had been previously apprehended by the freak troupe). But Jimmy’s old man silently encourages him to not give up by allowing him to escape to resume his journey.
Jimmy somehow gets to an airplane piloted by Pappy’s brother Pippy (what are the odds?), who tells Jimmy that he and his brother are estranged because two Asian sisters named “Poon Tang” and “Poon Nanny” came between them.
Jimmy’s mom tries to stop the plane from taking off, only to be stopped herself by Slim, who recognizes her as (of course) his former flame Wildfire. I’m guessing that next, we’ll learn that when Jimmy’s mom isn’t riding motorcycles, she dons a bustier to fight crime as Wonder Woman.
To further drive home this movie’s point that blood is thicker than water, Pippy dies at the wheel of his plane, which leads to Jimmy miraculously surviving a fall over Niagara Falls.
Finally, Jimmy reaches the wedding just as Chloe is about to say “I do.” He tells her he loves her and removes his bubble suit so he can touch her in what would be a poignant scene in a better movie. Jimmy then collapses as his parents, Slim, the freaks, and the zealots all arrive at the church. Oh, good, the gang’s all here.
Chloe mourns for Jimmy, until his dad forces his mom to confess that Jimmy’s fine. In fact, he’s actually had immunities since the age of four. Naturally, Jimmy wakes up at that moment, and his mom apologizes for ruling him with an iron fist, and he and Chloe embrace.
The film ends with Jimmy and Chloe getting married, while Pushpop provides ice cream cake for the reception and has acquired the cultists as his own disciples. The happy couple also get $500 from those casino guys, forcing us to hear “500 dollar!” once more. Our newlyweds also offer a toast “to friendship”, something I doubt they’ll find from this movie’s audience.
Jimmy’s parents bid farewell as they go off with Slim dressed in biker garb. Those crazy Bible thumpers; one minute they’re president of the Land of the Lost fan club, the next they’re having threesomes while auditioning for Easy Rider. Jimmy and Chloe get a final bonus as Pappy and Pippy (who are both somehow still alive) and Poon Nanny drive them off on their honeymoon.
This movie received criticism at the time of its release for poking fun at people with deficient immune systems. Truthfully, I don’t see any evidence of that. If anything, the movie should be taken to task for insulting pretty much anyone who isn’t Caucasian, or Californian.
This film certainly had the potential to be touching, but its main failure is that it resorts to juvenile, insulting humor. On top of that, despite the main character’s disease, events don’t really play out much differently than in any routine, teenage comedy. None of the supporting cast stands out, with Shelton playing the same dim bulb she played in Valentine, although this time, she isn’t required to scream.
This brings us to our lead. Jake Gyllenhaal was pretty much unknown at the time, and for all of this movie’s flaws (which are numerous), he at least tries to bring some enthusiasm to the proceedings. So it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s gone on to bigger things, just like Travolta after his bubble boy movie.
The only other positive thing I can say about this movie is that its failure ensured we wouldn’t have to suffer through the sequel, Bubble Baby.