Review by Kim Hollis
August 29, 2001
Derivative. Silly. Almost universally offensive. All of these words describe Bubble Boy perfectly…
…which is why I'm almost ashamed to admit I really enjoyed the film.
Bubble Boy is, at heart, a simple road story with a sweet romance at its center. Jimmy, our hero, has lived in an uncontaminated bubble his entire life because of a rare immune deficiency syndrome. His mother (played with vicious glee by Swoosie Kurtz) is an overprotective woman obsessed with cleanliness and religion. She bakes him protein-based, sterilized, crucifix-shaped cookies for meals, and her bedtime stories always end with the protagonist venturing outside his bubble and abruptly dying. Imagine her dismay when Jimmy befriends and subsequently falls for Chloe (Marley Shelton), the lovely and radiant next-door neighbor.
Alas, it would appear their love is not to be. The bubble is an impenetrable impediment, and Chloe gets engaged to her high-school sweetheart, with plans for a wedding in Niagara Falls in one week. Jimmy decides that he has to stop the wedding of the girl he adores, and builds himself a sort of personal bubble enclosure so that he can leave his house and travel across the country from California to New York.
Watching the ads, I had the impression that from that point on, Jimmy's road trip would pretty much consist of him falling down, getting hit by buses, and then falling down some more. Though these lowered expectations may be the reason I was pleasantly surprised, I believe much of the credit has to go to Jake Gyllenhaal, who infuses Jimmy Livingston with a naïve innocence and illuminates the screen with his dazzling smile. He is so imminently likeable that the movie worked for me despite several missteps.
To be fair, I probably should address those flaws. The movie blatantly takes the low road in several places. Probably the most troublesome, offensive scene in the film involves a painful, grotesque, horrible gag about Hinduism and cow worship. There are also some objectionable bits involving circus freaks and "funny" accents, and various racial stereotypes do tend to pop up now and again. I get the feeling the writers were trying to be outrageous and subversive, but they don't really break any new ground while pushing the envelope of good taste. It's been done better in films like There's Something About Mary and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and doesn't really add much value to a film that beats with a sweet heart otherwise.
In spite of the movie's failings, Jimmy's cross-country encounters with a wildly varied cast of characters do provide a lot of laughs and some occasional tender moments. A few of the more notable folks Jimmy meets include a weird religious cult, with a leader played by someone I don't want to name here because it does spoil the fun, but the casting of that particular role is inspired. Others include twin grumpy old men, a tough but loyal biker, a band of freaks and their "owner" (who is played by another familiar face), and a Hindi ice cream man.
In the end, I think the reason that I enjoyed Bubble Boy so much is that I found it oddly reminiscent of an '80s flick that is a particular favorite of mine, Better Off Dead. Though the two films bear no superficial similarities, they do both feature goofy but highly-charismatic lead actors, quirky families, and situations that require characters whom you might think would have only a brief role to appear again and again as plot points intersect. And much as Better Off Dead worked because of the charm and charisma of John Cusack as loveable loser Lane Myer, Bubble Boy relies on Gyllenhaal's undeniable magnetism and appeal.
It may have been my aforementioned low expectations, or perhaps it's simply because it made me laugh in spite of myself, but Bubble Boy is a movie that I will remember quite fondly. It's likely that I'll add it to my shelf of guilty-pleasure movies when it is released on video.