Bad Boy Bubby has been upgraded and placed on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. Please read the Bad Boy Bubby Certified Weird Entry and direct any comments about the film to that page. Comments are closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes.
DIRECTED BY: Rolf de Heer
FEATURING: Nicholas Hope
PLOT: Raised by his mentally ill mother with no knowledge of the outside world in what is
essentially a fallout shelter, middle-aged Bubby is suddenly released into a modern Australian society he can hardly comprehend, but must learn to fit into somehow.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Bad Boy Bubby has a unique tone that’s hard to capture, but the first words I’d choose to characterize it are “relentlessly offbeat,” rather than “weird.” Sadly, the existence of a Bubby—a child raised in captivity by a crazed parent—is not some weird invention, but is actually torn from today’s headlines. Although the incidents depicted often strain the bounds of plausibility (only briefly breaking them in the later reels), for the most part de Heer chooses to tell his story using a straightforward, realistic narrative style that makes us believe bizarre Bubby is a real person in a real world.
COMMENTS: Bad Boy Bubby is a film that moves slowly from deep darkness into light. It’s often shocking and depressing, particularly in that dingy first third, where Bubby’s unnatural relationship with his deranged mom in their claustrophobic basement hovel is made into a suffocating reality in which we are forced to share. The saving grace is that the movie always treats Bubby with true affection. Most of Bubby’s misbehavior, such as his tendency to shake a woman’s breast instead of her hand when he first meets her, comes out of childlike innocence. But even when Bubby’s truly, purposefully being a “bad boy,” we understand what he’s suffered—even though he doesn’t fully—and we remain firmly on his side. The script, which could have been ruthless to poor Bubby, rewards him (and the viewer) in the end, and the happy ending feels earned rather than tacked on.
Comic possibilities that were buried with Bubby in the dingy basement apartment emerge when Bubby escapes into the relative light of modern Australian society, but the movie never really threatens to become a comedy. Bubby’s gift for mimicry raises all sorts of opportunities for satirizing the absurdity of modern times (a la Peter Sellers in Being There), but the movie chooses to skirt these opportunities and instead focus on fleshing out Bubby’s character and experiences. In the middle portion of the film, after Bubby escapes from the underground and before he finds his place in the world, his wanderings are almost maddeningly random. He accumulates adventures by being picked up by one Good Samaritan—a Salvation Army band girl, an middle aged woman, a struggling rock band, a rich guy who dresses him up and takes him out on the town—and simply handed off to another, usually without much explanation for the transfer. This second act is the weakest part of the movie, but just as you’re starting to tire of the aimless episodes, bits from those seemingly random experiences begin to recur in Bubby’s life, become integrated into the overall story, and cohere into a satisfying ending.
The movie is essentially a character study of a very bizarre individual, but also invites interpretation as a fable about the process of growing up and discovering purpose in life. There is also a somewhat muddled religious journey that runs through the movie. Bubby, the illegitimate offspring of a drunken, disgraceful priest, begins life suffocated by false dogma about a Jesus who will beat him brainless if he misbehaves. Destitute, he’s exposed to a callous world where no one will truly help him, and his wanderings symbolically lead him to the depths of religious despair (the dogmatic materialist Bubby encounters in a church, who rather absurdly explains the philosophical problem of evil to the uncomprehending man-child and advises him that he must “think God out of existence.”) Free-associating, Bubby parrots the atheistic dogma at a funeral, but after being lectured on the evils of organized religion by a rock and roller, in the end he seems to find an amorphous free-form spirituality with the help of the not-so-subtly-named Angel. Or, perhaps he is finally able to find happiness because he’s finally been successful in thinking God out of existence; it’s not clear where the religious imagery is meant to lead us.
In the technical sense, the film is experimental, although the experiments end up invisible to the average viewer. Partially for practical reasons, de Heer chose to shoot the film with thirty-two different cinematographers, essentially one for every location. The fact that the variety of visual approaches aren’t disorientingly weird—few shots attract special attention to themselves, and most viewers would never guess their varied origins—suggests either that each director of photography chose to take a fairly conservative approach, or that cinematographers are a lot more interchangeable than previously supposed. The second experiment involves binaural sound: the film’s soundtrack was recorded and mixed from two microphones Hope wore behind his ears, so that the audience would experience the sonic world exactly as it would be heard from Bubby’s perspective. Hearing a proper binaural recording is supposed to be extraordinary, as it realistically reproduces a 360 degree soundscape. While this might work in a theater, the reality is that on home video the effect is largely lost, with the end result being only that a few of the conversations in the film sound frustratingly muffled. The director does suggest that the theatrical experience can be reproduced by listening to the movie while channeling the sound through a pair of stereo headphones. A third experiment was actually dropped from the film before it was released: originally, the scenes in the hovel were to have the sides matted to create a narrower, more claustrophobic aspect ratio, and the film was to expand into widescreen when Bubby surfaces into the outside world. De Heer thought the effect was too intense and made the film “unwatchable” and dropped the idea before releasing the film.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: