Bubble Boy Is the Happiest Comedy Surprise of the Season; Rat Race Gives It a Run for Its Money

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What makes us laugh might?for a minute?liberate us. That's my defense of the already controversial Bubble Boy. Some detractors don't even like the concept, but it's one of the rare original comedies to be produced by a Hollywood studio. Director Blair Hayes and his screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have fun with the story of a white California youth, Jimmy Livingston (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is born without immunities. They don't press the inherent metaphor for social apprehensiveness, but take the opportunity to lambaste an array of contemporary shibboleths. No group or sacred cow escapes Hayes' mockery; his carnival of characters flouts the sanctimony of middle-class zealots as well as fringe lunatics. Yet the film is actually more affectionate than rude. Bubble Boy boasts the ingenuousness special to teen comedies: exciting mischief and impudence toward authority. But for all Hayes' sarcasm it's never smirky. Surveying a world that was always just on the other side of Jimmy's prophylaxis tent and beyond the narrow range prescribed by his racist, overprotective mother (Swoosie Kurtz), the film radiates good humor.

Jimmy's coming-of-age is all about the thrill of being alive, not the pathos of infirmity. Protesting parents of actual immuno-deficient children forget that every child desires experience and freedom; these worrywarts would deprive those kids (and likely the rest of the world) the pleasure of sharing Jimmy's thrall. My guess is that ailing kids might, in fact, relate to Jimmy's predicament and cherish his magical mobility, blessed innocence and hilarious misadventures; perhaps even seeing themselves in Jimmy as he is propelled into a world full of potential friends (at one point he's passed among concertgoers like a beach ball). After all, Jimmy's part of a familiar tradition associated with Alice, Dorothy, Huck Finn and Otto in Repo Man.

It's a sign of how far we've gotten from the postpunk anarchism of Repo Man, Alex Cox's 1984 above-ground underground classic, that some people today don't get the joke of Bubble Boy's social satire. Accustomed to the grim family-values moralism implicit in films like American Beauty, they can't relate to Bubble Boy's derisive energy or its leftfield humor, which is much more effective than the sour Middle-American put-downs of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hayes seems a pure comic spirit; he appears to have no agenda other than spotlighting the eccentricities in our culture and enjoying them. Touchstone Pictures reasonably anticipates an openminded culture understanding Jimmy's agog perspective. Bubble Boy is basically another view of the mainstream but blithely askew; celebrating the culture's healthy lack of insularity, its welcoming heterogeneity. (A July 30 BusinessWeek report on "Racism in the Workplace" noted that "minorities' share of the workforce grew over the decade, which could have led to a corresponding rise in clashes.") Americans of clashing ethnicities, contrasting capabilities, countermanding faiths and varied experiences make Bubble Boy modern Hollywood's most enthusiastically democratic comedy. When Jimmy meets a Hindu Ice-Cream-and-Curry salesman, Hayes caps the sequence by showing a white kid and Indian kid running after the jingle-playing truck waving dollar bills?the former screaming for ice cream, the latter for curry.

Bubble Boy reconfigures a repository of American pop absurdity?characters watch tv broadcasts of Land of the Lost, Mr. Bubble and Bubblicious commercials and Don Ho doing his signature tune "Tiny Bubbles." Yes, the cultural coincidences occur in tiny, surreal, iridescent clusters. Jimmy's lonely jerrybuilt quest on a scooter should remind cognizant viewers of David Lynch's The Straight Story?a fine film also about an odyssey and pursuit of family and community?but this is the cheeky response Lynch's artsiness deserves. And Hayes' impudence also gets poetic: in his bubble suit Jimmy bounces across the desert with a vulture flapping in pursuit?an image as timeless as Chaplin's entrance followed by a bear in The Gold Rush.

This humor comes under the radar and in surprise attacks. Some subliminal cultural assumptions are exposed. When Jimmy tells Mexican biker Slim (Danny Trejo) that he left home to stop Chloe (Marley Shelton), the girl next door, from marrying another guy, he explains, "I want to have a relationship that lasts longer than 10 minutes." Slim sympathizes, saying, "I had one of those. After 10 minutes I threw her ass out." That's when I heard a child in the audience chuckle?either grasping the unsentimental joke or appreciating its expert timing. Bubble Boy's satirical touches (such as Jimmy innocently addressing people as vatas, or bitches, unaware of the cultural deprecation) comment on the super-naive or super-insensitive way Americans bounce through life. Gyllenhaal's wide-eyed, wild-haired wonderment (he looks like k.d. lang crossed with Jon Stewart) is perfect. He gauges the childish temper of the social fragmentation everyone laments but few have resolved. And when meeting Pippy, the twin brother of senior citizen Pappy (both played by Patrick Cranshaw), he gets to deliver a cheerful tongue-twister too good to spoil here.

In Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, cranky William Demarest told a law man who helps him out of a jam, "That's mighty white of you brother." America's finest satirists?from Sturges to the Farrelly brothers?know the best way to represent the country is to highlight and define its plurality. Bubble Boy bursts the cocoon of social restriction and cultural piety (both the ice cream salesman and Jimmy's mother have their pieties shaken). The key to this is partly Oedipal?Jimmy breaks out of his mother's suffocating conservative influence. By asserting independence, Jimmy risks his own safety just as Hayes risks offending the literal-minded, but Bubble Boy's benevolent worldliness and unexpected wonders provide a groovy payoff. In the flower-power van full of cultists singing to Fabio or an Hasidic Siamese twin conjoined to an acrobat in a leopard skin costume, Bubble Boy proposes a recognizably lunatic cosmos. "Don't live in regret," Slim teaches Jimmy; even a caravan of circus performers (as in Lynch's The Elephant Man) bears a motto offering comic humanist advice: "Phreakin' People Out Is Our Business." Bubble Boy's crazy comedy reproves the white solidarity of Sturges' day and the alienation of Alex Cox's. Dissipating social anxieties is always the right thing for a comedy to do.

Rat Race
directed by Jerry Zucker

In the current efflorescence of manic comedies, Bubble Boy is the happiest surprise of the season?and that's saying something given good competition like Osmosis Jones and Rat Race. In Rat Race director Jerry Zucker finally returns to his forte?silly comedy like Airplane!, not silly melodrama like Ghost. You can tell he's serious about filmmaking because the apparent care and craft make the visual gags more effective than Ghost. It's hard to name a topper: Is it Vince Vieluf and Seth Green as a duo of greedy brothers suddenly scuffling for safety while a monster truck drops toward them in lazy, suspenseful?and hilarious?slow motion? Or is it any one of cinematographer Thomas Ackerman's wide land- and skyscapes? The ecstatically clear vistas give Zucker's comedy Cloudcuckooland gracefulness.

Zucker isn't original like Blair Hayes; Rat Race retools the basic formula of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. A Las Vegas casino manager (John Cleese) arranges for six people to participate in a $2 million treasure hunt as amusement for a select group of wealthy gamblers who monitor the experiment. Obviously the plot ridicules greed, but Zucker keeps wild setpieces rolling off the assembly line. The cast is prime: Whoopi Goldberg in gold hair and purple lips (she does a mother-daughter act with Lanei Chapman); Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy play a Jewish family mistakenly visiting the (Klaus) Barbie Museum; Cuba Gooding Jr. goes bonkers amidst a busload of Lucy impersonators; and attorney Gloria Allred parodies herself?pricelessly?as an ambulance chaser.

Rat Race expertly balances caricature and satire. There's no better test of that than sitting through Kevin Smith's calamitous version of an all-star comedy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. At what? The Star Wars generation gets to congratulate itself on its own facetiousness as Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Lee and others help Smith (and costar Jason Mewes, doing their Jersey stoner shtick from Clerks) piss on their own bad indie movies and those of their betters. Smith rips off Cheech and Chong as well as Bill and Ted, bringing Internet slob comedy to the big screen while acting superior to professional comedies like Rat Race. That delusion suggests half of what is wrong with movies today where temerity?not skill, craft or feeling?passes for legitimate filmmaking.

It'd be disgraceful if Rat Race, Bubble Boy and Osmosis Jones got overshadowed by Kevin Smith's big publicity machine. With the exception of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, these three films represent our era's best comic talents operating at joyous peaks. I don't include Woody Allen's Curse of the Jade Scorpion among the fun flicks. Its central hypnosis ploy, in which Allen as an insurance investigator is tricked into falling in love with his hateful coworker Helen Hunt, is just another bald Fellini steal, this time of Nights of Cabiria (like Purple Rose of Cairo copied The White Sheik and Sweet and Lowdown copied La Strada). Each scene moves with the speed of the Empire State Bldg. Not even Allen's "It depends on what I'm eating" joke to sexpot Charlize Theron is bawdy. The laughs are on autopilot; there are no surprises left.

The ingenuity Allen once brought to What's Up, Tiger Lily? reappears in the mostly animated Osmosis Jones?the second of the three comedies that give the most fun this summer. Think of those biology textbook transparencies as if reimagined by Chuck Jones. But this is a Farrelly Bros. comedy?about the muck inside us all. It's dazzlingly inventive?full of political double entendres?as the Farrellys (working with Bill Murray for the first time since the superb Kingpin) go inside Murray's body and turn ectomorphic sloppiness into assorted biological gags. It's what the 60s Fantastic Voyage should have been. Chris Rock voices Murray's alter ego/immune system?a chance connection with Bubble Boy. Could these three comedies on community, greed and the subconscious be telling us what's really going on in America? Can't think of any recent dramas that feel more authentic.

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