All right, so here’s the idea: Each week I’ll watch a movie with a rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes and then defend the movie’s merits. Life’s too short to always be negative. It’s more fun to build something up than it is to take it down. Last week, I defended “Final Destination.” This time, it’s on to the immortal “Bubble Boy.”
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 29 percent
Critical Consensus: “Bubble Boy bounces along with lame, offensive jokes that are more tasteless than funny.”
When you think of Jake Gyllenhaal’s defining roles, the one that first comes to mind is from a certain 2001 movie. The one that was pretty lowkey and people had a hard time making heads or tails of it. Was the film a weird genre exercise, or a very relatable coming-of-age tale? If you’re thinking of the angsty, confounding “Donnie Darko,” well, that’s to be expected. If you’re thinking of the comic romp “Bubble Boy,” you and I may be kindred spirits.
“Bubble Boy” was dismissed by critics and audiences alike when it dropped in the fall of 2001, and unlike Gyllenhaal’s moodier sci-fi flick from that same time, never found a cult audience to embrace and champion it. “Zoolander” came out that same fall and there was room for only one ridiculous comedy in the zeitgeist. Besides, “Seinfeld” already established the quintessential bubble boy story and we didn’t need another one.
On the other hand, “Bubble Boy” is timeless. Audiences love coming-of-age stories. Everyone wants to believe that they’re story is unique, so we latch on to stories that relate to us, however tangentially that may be. Who can’t relate to Bubble Boy leaving home for the first time, finding his way in the world, all in the name of love? If those aren’t universal themes, I’m living a different life from everyone else.
So here’s the setup for the movie: Jimmy was born without immunities, so he lives in a bubble and stays inside all the time. He makes friends with “the whore next door,” (Marley Shelton) as his mom (Swoosie Kurtz) puts it. As these stories would have it, she agrees to marry a tool. Of course the wedding is set for Niagara Falls, giving Jimmy a scant three days to traverse the country and break up the wedding with a declaration of his love. Tried and true plot elements (re: clichés) galore.
This is where I think the movie loses a lot of people. We’ve got a road trip comedy, a love story, and coming-of-age story all rolled into one. The anchor for all of this is Gyllenhaal’s performance as Jimmy. There’s so much youthful exuberance and obliviousness that you can’t help but root for the guy. Everything is a new experience for him. His mother has instilled so much fear in him that he takes a small bat to his first erection.
The movie is written off as being tasteless and offensive, but the story has been set up in a way that it gets to have its cake and eat it too. Once Jimmy leaves home, everything is a new experience for him, meaning he doesn’t know about stereotypes, so the jokes that venture in that territory are lost on Jimmy. The audience may roll their eyes at Jimmy’s encounters with rude customer service (dispensed by Zach Galifianakis), Mexican bikers, country bumpkins, and cultists, but the key to the movie’s success remains Jimmy’s innocence. When he faces these situations, he can’t recognize them for what they are, so he can’t react the way we normally do. Why doesn’t he recognize these situations, you didn’t ask? Well, that’s because his mom has sheltered and held Jimmy back far more than his condition ever could. Jimmy’s mom is the most bigoted, controlling person in the movie. That Jimmy is able to break the cycle and learn to go against her misguided teachings is the character’s greatest victory. And that’s really saying something for a guy who crosses a country by land and air in the time it takes most of us to get around to checking the mail.
The movie’s strongest themes are acceptance, embracing everyone’s differences, and finding your own way in the world. The movie condemns those that pass judgment based on ignorance, as in the scene where small-town folk freak out because they don’t know what immunities are (“I don’t know, but I’m not sticking around to find out.”) and castigates them for shallow-mindedness. These themes come together when Jimmy runs into the clan of freak show performers under the reign of Verne Troyer’s Dr. Freak. Relegated to second-class status, the group finds empowerment through Jimmy’s refusal to accept that fate. Ultimately, Jimmy is inspiration to everyone he encounters through sheer force of will and personality. If this guy, who seemingly has more in his way than anybody, can follow his heart, why can’t we channel that braveness ourselves?