John Travolta gives an infectious performance in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.

TV and popular culture.
June 29 2005 2:02 PM

Not Immune to His Charms

John Travolta gives an infectious performance in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.

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Some (possibly stoned) genius in the TV Land programming department has come up with the brilliant idea of combating the summer-season doldrums with "Movie of the Week" Week. Every night this week, the channel will re-air one (or on some nights, two) of the made-for-TV feature length movies that were the most prestigious project in television during the days of the three broadcast networks. Whether it's James Caan as a football star dying of cancer ( Brian's Song) or Sally Field as a woman tormented by her 16 different personalities ( Sybil), you can spend every night this week immersed in the social problems, tear-jerking diseases, and pleasantly grainy film stock of the '70s and early '80s. And in case you miss a single earnest moment, all nine films will be reshown in a Movie of the Week marathon over the Fourth of July weekend (click here for complete schedule).

The first part of last night's double feature, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, has to be the jewel in the crown of the week's offerings. How can you resist any film starring an impossibly baby-faced John Travolta as a 16-year-old kid who spends his days in a giant Habitrail outfitted with disco lights? Travolta's character, Todd Lubitch, may not have an immune system, but he's got a cool Lucite pad tricked out with a TV set, a snappy wardrobe, and a sterile pet mouse in a hamster wheel. From the moment Travolta first appears onscreen, bedecked in a pink-and-black-checked knit hat with a huge pom-pom on top, he's electrifying, and the scene in which he disco dances around his bubble wearing short shorts and a football jersey is worth three months of cable bills.

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Part of the fun of watching TheBoy in the Plastic Bubble is tracing the film's connections to the rest of TV history. When Robert Reed, playing Todd's father, assures his wife (Diana Hyland), "There were never two people in the world that were more meant to be parents than you and me," you think, Well, duh! You're Mike Brady and the original mom on Eight Is Enough!

But the joys of The Boy in the Plastic Bubble aren't all camp. The script, by Douglas Day Stewart (whose most famous writing credit is for An Officer and a Gentleman), is surprisingly funny and sharp, especially the prickly banter between Todd and Gina (Glynis O'Connor), the girl next door who teases him at first, then gradually falls for him. Their relationship is a nifty gender reversal: She's a tough, slangy tomboy in the Jodie Foster mode, while Todd is a tender flower, forever getting his feelings hurt or looking longingly up at the sky.

After a childhood spent interacting mainly with parents and doctors, the teenage Todd is just as defenseless emotionally as he is immunologically; when Gina holds his hand through the rubber glove built into his box, he lights up like a Christmas tree, only to crumple up weeping when she abruptly withdraws her affection. Despite his recent spate of tough-guy roles, Travolta has always specialized in playing this kind of emotionally open, volatile man; his most memorable roles include the Clintonesque president in Primary Colors and the endearingly insecure hit man in Pulp Fiction. Travolta has gotten so overexposed and self-parodying in his late career that it's easy to forget what an immensely charismatic performer he can be and why his first appearance on the scene caused such a splash. (The Boy in the Plastic Bubble was made in 1976, one year after Travolta's TV debut in Welcome Back, Kotter and one year before he hit the big time with Saturday Night Fever.) The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is a perfectly preserved time capsule of its pop-cultural moment, which is what makes the choice to revisit it in 2005 nostalgic in the best sense.

Todd's physician (played by the Hollywood standby Ralph Bellamy), who comes over every month to play a game of chess with his young patient, tells him sternly, "You've got the best excuse ever devised by anyone to avoid growing up." The bubble, of course, is a perfect symbol for the cloistering narcissism of adolescence, and when Todd outfits himself with a bright orange astronaut suit in order to attend the local high school, it's the immune-impaired equivalent of graduation. When at last he takes a deep breath and dares to step, unequipped, over the threshold that's kept him prisoner for 16 years—all for a kiss, of course—it's positively thrilling, even (OK, OK, especially) when a syrupy Paul Williams ballad kicks in over the closing credits.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.