Dir Blair Hayes. US 2001. 84 mins

While deliberately tasteless comedies are fairly common - think The Producers, Blazing Saddles or the recent spate of gross-out teen comedies - it is difficult to recall a film as unintentionally in bad taste as Bubble Boy. Ostensibly a coming-of-age story about a young man who is born without an immune system and must spend his entire life within the confines of a germ-free plastic room, the film manages to offend just about every ethnic, religious or physically-identifiable group it presents, from midgets to Latinos to Hindus to Asians. On top of that, its brand of broad, slapstick humour falls flat. Commercial prospects for this staggeringly bad movie - a new low for Touchstone-- look grim.

Jake Gyllenhaal, so impressive in October Sky, stars as 17-year old Jimmy Livingston who, immediately upon entering the world, is placed in a germ-free plastic environment which he can never leave (the film's opening moments, of baby Jimmy being rolled down a hospital corridor by a nun, is the only genuinely amusing, clever scene in the entire picture). Mama (two-time Tony award-winner Swoosie Kurtz) is an overprotective, hysterically religious Reagan Republican who rejoices that her son's plastic prison will keep him "safe from this evil, filthy world". Jimmy's brow-beaten father never opens his mouth.

The only other person the growing boy knows is his next door neighbor and best friend Chloe (Marley Shelton from Pleasantville and Sugar And Spice), but he is too shy to declare his true feelings for her. When the sweet but dim-witted Chloe runs off to Niagara Falls, 3,000 miles away, to get married, Jimmy builds a mobile bubble suit and pursues her.

Along the way he encounters a religious cult, whose members believe him to be "the incarnation of the Chosen One"; a band of grizzled, tattooed motorcyclists; an Indian-born Hindu who drives an ice-cream truck; and a travelling freak show, presided over by a malevolent midget. Like this summer's Rat Race, Bubble Boy is a frantic, frenetic road movie which follows a host of mindless characters chasing one another across the country.

Given how relentlessly lame the script is, the actors face an almost impossible task and no one emerges unscathed. It is a story filled with pratfalls, stereotypes and crass humor, including repeated scenes of either Jimmy or the dictatorial midget getting struck by speeding trucks or tossed out of car windows. How performers of the calibre of Gyllenhaal and Kurtz could even agree to appear in such a moronic story is a mystery.

Producer Beau Flynn, who came up with the story idea (and who, incongruously, counts the terrific Tigerland and Requiem For A Dream among his other credits) obviously envisaged the film as the tale of a innocent soul who must learn to navigate the real world. To label the film a miscalculation would be most generous; calling it a total misfire would be closer to the truth. Reportedly, support groups for sufferers of immune system disorders are up in arms about the film, concerned that it makes fun of those afflicted with a rare but very real medical condition. The protestors should be incensed, but for a totally different reason. The film doesn't make fun of its protagonist; rather, it makes him - and everybody else in the film - out to be hopelessly simple-minded.

Prod co: Touchstone Pictures/Germ Free Productions, Inc.
US dist: Buena Vista
Intl dist: Buena Vista
Prod: Beau Flynn
Scr: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio
Cinematography: Jerzy Zielinski
Pro des: Barry Robison
Ed: Pamela Martin
Music: John Ottman
Main cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Swoosie Kurtz, Marley Shelton