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What a movie! For sheer offensiveness, I don’t think I’ve seen anything in years to match “Bubble Boy.” A Disney product, opening this weekend, it is the first feature film directed by Blair Hayes, who spent 10 years making commercial spots for the likes of Federal Express, Sony, American Express, KFC and Gatorade.
In an exquisite irony, given the content of “Bubble Boy,” Hayes opened his own production company six years ago, naming it The Hayes Office. Now, if you remember once upon a time in the old Hollywood, the Hays (slightly different spelling) Office was dreaded by all Hollywood producers because of its Production Code whose main purpose was to keep the content of American movies clean and decent. No profanity. No sex. No two people in a bed together – that sort of thing. As you may have noticed, Hollywood movies have come a very long way since the days of the Hays Office.
Blair Hayes seems to have wanted to upturn in “Bubble Boy,” every last single item of the old Hays Production Code. He succeeds in insulting or demeaning just about every segment of society you can think of, going for laughs at all times.
Right from the outset, with newborn Jimmy Livingston being wheeled down a hospital corridor by a nun in a huge white habit, we pick up that Catholics are not going to be treated with the utmost respect. Jimmy, we learn, is suffering from Primary Immunodeficiency, which means he must be raised in a plastic bubble to shield him from the germs of the world. His mother (Swoosie Kurtz), a devout, indeed bigoted, Catholic also wants to keep all the horrors of the modern world away from her boy. She bakes cookies that she stamps with the name of Jesus. She also prepares fiber-enriched bars in the shape of a fairly large cross. We see Jimmy innocently munching on these cross bars more than once, eliciting uneasy titters from the audience each time.
As Jimmy is growing up in his large, well-equipped bubble, home-educated by his mom, along with all her prejudices, he becomes friends with the sweet pretty girl next door, whom his mother always refers to as “the little whore next door,” without ever explaining to Jimmy what the word means. Mom also has never allowed Jimmy to watch any television. Too vile.
Comes the day that Chloe (Marley Shelton) tells Jimmy she is getting married and leaves him a present. When alone and bitter, he opens the gift and finds it is a miniature bubble with tiny figures of himself and Chloe, on the outside of which she has printed, “I love you.”
Jimmy promptly creates a traveling bubble for himself and slips clumsily out the house at dawn to stop the wedding at Niagara Falls – four days and several thousand miles hence – and declare his love for Chloe.
Out in the big world, Jimmy starts interacting with people and the outside for the first time. A busload of merry members of a cult – all in white t-shirts and pants and all named Todd – pick him up until they find, given his mom’s teaching, he has no use for cults. They throw him off the bus, leaving him in the middle of a desert to drudge along in his clumsy spastic walk, hampered as he is by his bubble suit. The walk is certainly not intended to make anyone suffering from such a disorder feel very good about him being used as a figure of fun.
Meanwhile, back home, mom and dad ( a large, passive man), receive a fax offering the return of their son for $50,000. It is signed “The Jews.” Mom bursts out, not to be ridiculous: “50,000? Can’t be from Jews!” implying Jews would want a lot more money. I’m afraid the audience guffawed loudly.
Jimmy meets up with a friendly Hindu driving a colorful van offering ice cream and curry. Jimmy manages to offend this fellow by putting down his religion as being ridiculous. He knows this because of what his mom told him. The van crashes into a cow – sacred of course to the Hindu faith. And we get a lot of laughs from the Hindu weeping and wailing and trying to mourn as trucks and cars race over the dead beast, gradually reducing the remains to hamburger.
Next around to be used for comic effect, we get a group, unabashedly described in the film and the press kit as “circus sideshow freaks” – Chicken Man, Lil’ Zip, Rubber Woman, Flipper Boy, Human Sasquatch and Dr. Phreak. Interwoven into the plot we get the cult group in a meeting with their leader – romance-novel cover boy Fabio, who announces the Messiah will appear as a being in a bubble. Off dash the cultists to catch up with Jimmy.
Before Jimmy makes it to Niagara Falls, we get him involved in mud wrestling – bubble and all – with two husky nearly naked blondes overseen by a Chinese man shouting in a heavy accent, which Jimmy starts mimicking, shouting back, as if everyone in the audience is supposed to find this wonderfully funny. And they laughed. They laughed.
Now there is one man out there, Fred Modell, running the Jeffrey Modell Foundation (named for his son who died of the disorder made mock of in the film – Primary Immunodeficiency) who has protested to a Disney studio executive prior to its release, asking whether the Disney Company would help increase awareness of the disease and wanted to know if possibly the company might even add a coda about the syndrome in the end credits.
At first apparently, the executive agreed to work with him, only to tell him weeks later that Modell was on his own. The executive wouldn’t comment, but a Disney source says, “We did investigate (possibilities), but when it came down to who the movie is marketed towards, it didn’t make sense. (Teenagers) aren’t going to read the credits or click onto their website.”
Right. And how about teenagers getting the idea that it’s real cool to make fun of Catholics, Jews, Hindus and, heaven help us, “freaks?” In 1932, Will Hays banned the Tod Browning film “Freaks,” set in a circus with actual sideshow performers in the cast resembling those in “Bubble Boy.” Because of the ban, it was not shown in the States for 30 years.