Touch Me, I'm Sick

Plastic passion: Jake Gyllenhaal in Bubble Boy

Barely a week old, Disney's Bubble Boy has already been popped in print for being the year's sickest spawn. "Thank goodness Walt's not around to see it," mused the Star Tribune, as if the family man who sired Song of the South's giddy slaves needed posthumous protection from his company's political incorrectness. Granted, the purportedly wacky tale of an immunodeficient teen who pursues the girl of his dreams cross-country while wearing a germ-free bubble suit--"How do you take a dump in that?" one character inquires--isn't going to be to everyone's taste. And Disney's refusal to grant the request of an immunodeficient boy's parents for an end-credit PSA about their late son's disease--the kiddie audience doesn't stick around to read end-credits anyway, says the studio--might even be seen as a little crass. Still, you can't blame first-time director Blair Hayes for wanting to capture a metaphor with some personal resonance. I mean, if Hayes's decade-long career as the acclaimed maker of TV ads for FedEx and KFC doesn't constitute life in a bubble, what does?

No wonder Bubble Boy's sense of humor extends to sampling an animated ad for Bubblicious--and not much further. Which is a shame, since the concept of a boy in a bubble hasn't always been so full of hot air. Albeit insufferably maudlin, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble--Aaron Spelling's Spirit of '76 TV-movie sensation--created an indelible symbol of teen purity and shelter for the pre-AIDS, post-sexual revolution era. (The boy's pointedly prudish father was played by Mr. Brady himself, Robert Reed.) As if such plastic passion wasn't Me Generation enough, the film's rising star John Travolta couldn't help seeing the narcissistic, disco-dancing, chronically masturbating bubble boy in his own image. "Since my success I feel like I've been put in the same position as the boy in the bubble," he confessed to Newsweek in 1976. "I'm also isolated." (That Travolta nursed his separation anxiety at the naked bosom of the bubble boy's mom--actor Diana Hyland, who died of cancer four months after the movie's broadcast--only heightens the film's somewhat sickening take on family values.)

If new bubble boy Jake Gyllenhaal has seemed in recent interviews to attribute his own Method to a stint at Columbia University (college is a vacuum, you know), the sterile Bubble Boy itself appears isolated even from that level of real-world experience. You'd think the legions of well-off, Internet-obsessed bubble boys out there could easily claim script credit for a movie about a kid whose bedroom is his entire world. But screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Dario--otherwise known for the as-yet-unproduced Special, about a construction foreman who fakes a handicap to win the approval of his girlfriend and her son--aren't much interested in any disease other than overprotective motherhood. Indeed, it turns out that Gyllenhaal's spiky-haired Jimmy is only unhealthy for being the offspring of a shrewish Jesus freak (Swoosie Kurtz) who cuts homemade cookies in the shape of the cross and totally flips out at the sight of her son's bubble-stretching erection. (Cue MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This.")

That the movie's Mom is revealed to have manipulated her child's condition in order to keep him sheltered from "the Jews" and other undesirables in the world is offensive enough: Even mothers of healthy kids might consider joining the anti-Disney brigade. But the fact that the film unconsciously sides with the xenophobic harpy by having Jimmy cross paths with one nutty ethnic stereotype after another suggests a disease that has reached more advanced stages of development. (Not even D.W. Griffith would have dared imagine an Asian mud-wrestling emcee shrieking, "Fai hunda dolla!") Hollywood is a plastic bubble, to be sure, but that doesn't excuse the filmmakers for not getting out more.

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