God Bless You, Mr. Dubois

Hubie Halloween (2020)


I carry fear like cavities—half-consciously and in my crevices. I have these spreading and many-legged rots, you see. A lot of the time I can shrink them down, these anxious eaters, into a dense and darkish bulb the color of a fistful of hornets. I bury them way down deep in my belly. And then I have my day. 

Most days the bulb stays put. Though I chitter in anxiety, though every gulp of air is an opportunity for something thoraxed to come flying out of my mouth, I breathe until the buzzing retreats—these are the good days. On other days, the bulb breaks. Its taut edges split and the inside stuff—all flying fibers and wingy fluids—leaks out. My day has seeped. I Pandora’s-Box. I’m scared all the day long. I’m not telling you these things because I think you’ll think they’re novel. I’m telling you these things because I suspect you have also held yourself, and felt your skin hum, and thought, “hornets.”

This essay is about what to do when we’re up to our necks in the stinging bugs of our own making, the ones we’ve adopted as reasonable and rational reactions to living in this end of the world. There is a lot to be afraid of. A body could be forgiven for saying “I just get scared.” This essay is about how we might get light into our dark places. This light—which neither terminates nor obliviates our fear stuff but rather, sees us seeing it—is the eternal something between knowing and changing. It smells like kindness and it sounds like “We all get scared. But this year you’re going to have to find that bravery in you.”

This light, I propose, is all over Hubie Halloween. 

Hubie Halloween is an Adam Sandler Netflix movie, a subgenre of a subgenre you maybe recognize but almost certainly react to ontologically. The Sandler mode doesn’t go for groans or eye-rolls, but for the gag, which is to say the act that inspires revulsion in order to catalyze rupture. We might transcend our fears by excreting them. A general theory of Adam Sandler proposes that the scatological is not merely debased from the ontological but rather essential to it, a strain of puerility keyed towards purity. To be is almost good enough; to be and to be laughing at the sound of a fart is sublime. We might get over by taking the low road.

Hubie Halloween is the story of a man named Hubert Shubert Dubois and his always-quest to make sure the citizens of Salem, MA have a safe Halloween. Hubie rides a bike and lives with his mother. He has a criminally-unfinished moustache and a semi-patch of pumpkin orange hair on the top of his head. Did he dye it that way? He lies about the fictional girlfriend he has North of the border (“the Canada Dry region.”) He is never far from his trusty Swiss-Army thermos, a device that is at various turns a flashlight-blender-megaphone-grappling hook-flare gun-vacuum. He wields a ping-pong paddle sometimes and speaks in a kind of stilted and juttered all-world Sandler funnytime voice, a little like Daniel Plainview impersonating Milton from Office Space

The thing about Hubie Dubois is that he is a genuinely askew human. From his first entry into the universe of the film—being egged by a platoon of teenage boys, catching the eggs in his thermos, drinking down the concoction in self-proclaimed “Rocky Balboa style,” immediately projectile vomiting—we recognize him as an abberative figure. Hubie isn’t quite who we’d want to be, just maybe who we wish we could want to want to be. The dislocative Sandlerness is important: like the askance outlaw goons of Billy Madison and The Wedding Singer, of Sandy Wexler and The Waterboy, Hubie Halloween (and again, Sandler more broadly) means that there is no reason to suggest that these noodly realities might not be just as plausible as ours. It means that their denizens, these puerile and sensitive and fearful humans who move and talk in funny ways, are just as deserving of care as anyone else.

When I recommend Hubie Halloween to you rabidly and over-zealously, when I hum with the sweet shocked shout of an Almond Joy with two (!) almonds, what I mean is: at our most puerile and sensitive and fearful we are just as deserving of care as anybody else. Will you remember that?

In Hubie Halloween, people keep disappearing, spooky style. This is obviously a source of increasing consternation for our Halloween hero. Are these disappearances related to the masked man who escapes from a local psychiatric hospital early on in the film? What’s the connection between these disappearances and Salem’s gruesome history of levying blame and punishment on outsider figures? Is there something more, something lurking, to the fact that Hubie is actually related to some of those unjustly persecuted men and women who perished in the Witch Trials? And why is Hubie’s new neighbor boarding up his windows and insisting Hubie leave him alone if any strange sounds should emanate from the house during a full moon? 

You can ask a lot of Hubie HalloweenDoes it take place in the Happy Madison Cinematic Universe? for one— and these plotty questions are all perfectly reasonable. There is a Scooby-Dooian mystery to be solved. It’s Halloween, after all. Anything can happen on Halloween. There is a certain wonder in wondering. 

I confess that I do not approach Hubie Halloween as an exercise in answers, even though I’m guilty of thinking answers are the answer to being afraid. In my skeleton bones though, I suspect knowing does very little to prevent fearing. Fearing isn’t meaning. It’s caring with a twist. 

To care about Hubie Halloween is to care about Hubie Dubois, a requirement I might suggest is not always the case for our current cultural artifacts. There is no arch approach, no arm’s-length you might occupy: any affection you might have for this honey-sweet film is predicated on if, and how, you care about Hubie. Of course Hubie cares, this is his default mode. I like to think about the film watching me: Hubie doesn’t know me, but Hubie would care about me if he did. I think he might care already, even though he doesn’t know me. The care in Hubie Halloween extends beyond knowing. So many of us don’t have Hubie Dubois’ particular askance experiences, but we also don’t have each others’. It’s not asking you to care because you can imagine what it would be to possess this exact specific set of experiences, it’s asking you to care precisely because you don’t. The perversity of care is that it’s not predicated on a prerequisite of empathy but rather a decision towards solidarity.

This care can be a usefully destabilizing force, especially as it exists in the scope of an uncaring world. Hubie serves less as a mirror of our cruel/real world than he does as a prompt to perversity—toting a swiss-army thermos, self-declaring yourself Monitor of Halloween, being nice to everyone—as a mode towards living in a better world. And while there is a distinctive strain of niceness in Hubie Halloween (more on this later), I also don’t mean to align the film with any cresting wave of earnest art. I’m still not entirely sure of what we mean when we talk about such earnestness in these terms: yes it is good to take things seriously, but haven’t we all been forced to do that, out of a need to survive? What if we find ourselves attached and committed to the wrong worlds? And if the earnest mode is defined somehow by a certain devotion to remaining engaged, how do we account for the great many artists—Mel Brooks, the Muppets, Richard Pryor, Elaine May, Sandler of course—who express their attachment specifically by rubberizing it into the sky? It’s not that they’re positioning themselves above being, and it’s not even that they might not be (perhaps improbably) earnest themselves, but rather, that ‘earnest’ itself isn’t an enormously useful metric to measure art with.

The joy of Hubie Halloween—and it’s this sensation, joy, that I might propose as the mode we gesture to when we want to talk about cultural objects that make us feel good—is in how it marries the community engagement of its hero with a looney-tune Halloweentown universe of gag and giggle. It bears repeating: this is a film that introduces its hero by having him projectile vomit while doing B-minus BMX on a bicycle while “The Monster Mash” plays. Preteens lob burning poop at him. He farts while meeting his new (werewolf?) neighbor. By the time that escaped patient from the psychiatric hospital is seen peeing on Hubie’s lawn, we’ve witnessed every kind of olfactory joke manufacturable. This is the new Adam Sandler Netflix movie. Bad taste is the best defense against the bourgeoisie.

More than simply being, or being good, joy is being happy or lustful or sated or comfortable. It is the thing we can wring out of our anxieties, our sour joys. Hubie Halloween is a joyful film. It is also an afraid one.

Hubie is afraid. All the time. He jumps at loud noises, whether they come from an motion-activated animatronic skeleton in own living room or a mean-spirited coworker at the deli counter. While making a presentation on Halloween safety at the local school, he jumps at the sight of a small child in a Halloween costume. “I just get scared,” he says to his mom early on. It’s not even in frustration. He just does. We just do. “We all get scared,” his mom (June Squibb, actual magic) tells him. “But this year you’re gonna have to find that bravery in you.” 

His fears open him up to ridicule: there’s lots of bullies out there. There’s Mr. Landolfa (a Ray Liotta-sized cackle played by Ray Liotta) who calls him ‘Pubie’ and pushes him into fresh-dug graves. There’s Officer Steve (obviously—though, honestly, not obnoxiously—a mulleted Kevin James) who brushes Hubie off as a weird annoyance. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Hennessey (Tim Meadows and Maya Rudolph, who can play these roles in their sleep and never do), a married couple whose only joy in the throes of their own sexual frustration is making fun of Hubie. There’s a lot to be anxious about out there.

If you asked me to list all my fears I could fill a page with these bent angles we call written English. They would span the understandably seeable (surprise millipedes on a pillow, variously gelatinous stinging things in the ocean, sharks in the deep end) and the things in my head (hearing or memory loss, the deep melancholy of experiencing joys with humans I love and knowing I should appreciate them more than I am and then feeling panicked that I’m missing the moment) and the mysterious yet universal (the underspace of a couch.) I see the ways Hubie likes soup, celebrates Halloween, crushes on his crush and so I think: maybe any attempt to atomize Hubie’s fearfulness is like atomizing my own. We do the same things, so we probably do the same things, you know?

And so I don’t think Hubie is especially scared because of any latent or unresolved issue with the deceased father he mentions in passing or because of the strain his commitment to community puts on his own social life. I don’t want to psychoanalyze Hubie Halloween. I want to see it seeing me because when I do that, I laugh. And when I laugh, in secret and stifled guffaws or a Mack Truck “HA,” I transfigure a glob of my fear nodules into sweet sticky shreds of almond under chocolate. Fear is care dialed up to 11—if you equalize it, you get something like joy. And so I think Hubie’s afraid a lot of the time because he cares a lot of the time. To open yourself up to a jump scare is to be listening and watching.

Like a candy coating, a film can be a sort of protection. It protects our gooey stuff. Sweet as it seems, that protection exists less to shuttle us to a fantasy world than it does provide cover for our catalyzing bodies as they navigate the world. It’s easy to grow up cruel! It’s understandable to internalize the fear and rebraid it with your bullying. Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen, seesawing nice and good—when will Julie Bowen play Cinderella in Into the Woods?) is Hubie’s longtime crush, who reciprocates that crush from afar. She’s also a foster mother, a quick little script detail that might get lost in the “Monster Mash” gloop soup of Hubie Halloween. But it’s a quick little script detail I could kiss the screenwriters for: there are so many alternatives to the ruinous structures we labor under. All bodies deserve care, especially those summarily ignored by preexisting dominant structures. At our core we’re tender; with a little film to care over us, we can exist better inoculated from cruelty.

Hubie Halloween, then, is a movie about people who are usually ignored, a story about not-necessarily inevitable existences being given space to laugh and change the world. In the fission between its wholly-engaged attempt to stick up for the askance and its equally-present destabilizing tendency to utter that engagement in absurd terms, the film reveals itself as a monitor on community action, a moving gesture of tenderness towards the genuinely askew, towards the tender, a celebratory honk-ode to a strain of niceness that doesn’t patronize or fetishize niceness itself. It is so, so good.

Hubie isn’t good because he’s nice and he’s not even good because he isn’t mean. He’s nice with no expectation that it will net or get him anything and he’s good because all nice means—genuinely—is wanting to help others more than you help yourself. There’s plenty of candy to go around, but not if some parties take more than their allotment. Hubie’s just there to try and make sure everyone gets a piece. 

That’s the other thing about Hubie: he’s nice. He’s a nice man. “Hubie Dubois is probably the nicest guy in this town,” says Violet Valentine. Why does Violet have a crush on Hubie Dubois when so many other people in Salem, MA have nothing but ridicule for him? “Take it from me, nice matters.”

That term “nice” is justifiably loaded these days. A certain eighth grade version of me will never let go of Stephen Sondheim’s Little Red formulation: “nice is different than good.” A certain high school version of me will never stop seeing ‘nice’ as a calculated theatrical gesture meant to assuage actions that speak to its opposite. You can give away trick-or-treat candy because you understand it will ingratiate people to you—this is a flip shade of niceness.

But you can also give away half of your trick or treat candy—like Hubie does—because you know other people need some sweet stuff. I think there’s just enough room for this to be a valid reality, this genuine tendency. And so this certain thirty-year old version of me living in each scared day thinks: maybe there’s something essential about being nice in being good.

At a particular crucial juncture, when his investigation has stalled, Hubie goes to Violet’s diner for a soup refill (“one clam, one chicken noodle, one split pea.”) Violet asks why Hubie looks stressed. “I happen to be an excellent listener,” she says, “if you feel like sharing anything with me.” Hubie shrugs, muses, “We all have a purpose. Some people’s purpose is to make sure all the streets are clean. Some people’s purpose—like Kenny Rogers—is to make sure there’s great tunes on the radio that we can all sing along with on road trips. Some people’s purposes—like you—are to make sure kids without parents end up with a mom anyways, who’s nice and kind to them and makes them feel loved.” He pauses. “You happen to have any A1 sauce?” 

She hands him the A1 sauce. 

“My whole life I felt my purpose was to make sure everyone was safe and sound on Halloween. But tonight I have failed massively. Because a fine young man has been abducted on my watch. That’s on me.” Hubie scrunches his lower lip all muppety. “That night is young. I appreciate you being nice to me.” 

Violet nods and turns her face: “Of course, Hubie. You’re the best person I know. You’re always thinking of everyone else and never of yourself. But I guess that’s why you’re a hero.” 

I can’t remember the last time a movie has asked me to care for a person this plainly, purely nice. And it doesn’t feel boring or manipulative or political, just a way out of being scared all the time.

The mystery gets solved. It wasn’t the escaped psychiatric patient or the maybe werewolf neighbor. It was Hubie’s mom the whole time, the descendent of the people tried in Salem’s witch trials, kidnapping the people who bullied her son. “This town is as full of bullies now as it ever was in the 1600s.”

This extra crucial wrinkling is the essential argument for Hubie Halloween’s theory on living. If it is not only possible but rather necessary to be nice in this world, if acts of help and care can be as simple and essential as listening to someone’s story in a diner, it is equally simply intolerable to not fight back when necessary. 

We have to be willing to be un-nice in service of eradicating bullies—or rather, eradicating the meanness from bodies that breed bullies. We have to believe in rehabilitation (Hubie does save his former bullies when his mom tries to burn them at the stake) but we cannot excuse their behavior. And we have to encourage effective action against that behavior—if June Squibb doesn’t quite get to burn her son’s tormentors alive, she also isn’t punished by the film. If anything, she’s celebrated, gets to escape in a sprig of actual magic. Which sounds like a laugh.

If there is an essential strand of niceness in goodness, it is only activated alongside something like justice: “if you don’t fight back, the bullies never stop.”

Some days it feels like all we have left are bullies. Like we’ve lost some strain of tenderness with the world and with each other. I think when we’re afraid, we remember it. I think when we get over our fears, it looks a lot like fighting to say what we see. I think we’re realizing all the time that we’re afraid because we care.

These are the days I feel scared most of the time. It is getting better. I believe that it is getting better. Is that stupid of me? Nice? I don’t know but I’ll care.