An acquired taste for sure, Kyle Mooney made a name for himself being an ass. From checking into kickers inside So-Cal to playing a definitely-on-the-spectrum sports reporter who’s totally out of his league, Mooney has capitalized on mocking mainstream culture, championing a keen ability to satirize entire populations by being the very dumbest version of such. Mostly by making an ass of himself. So imagine my surprise when Mooney’s brainchild Brigsby Bear (written by and starring Mooney and directed by comedy collective Good Neighbor compatriot Dave McCary) is such an earnest and heartfelt affair, if a bit simple-minded, saccharine sweet and stubbornly sunny.
In the film, Mooney plays James Pope, a definitely-on-the-spectrum man-child holed up in an underground bunker. There Ted (Mark Hammill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams) egg on James’ obsession with the super-low-budget educational kid’s show from which the movie takes its title, Brisgby Bear. In his eerie little den of a bedroom, James is the epitome of unchecked internet nerd gone gaga. He develops ludicrous (and pointless) in-depth theories about the show, displays countless Brigsby memorabilia around his room and even sexualizes the (quite young) female characters on the show. It’s his only interaction with the other gender outside of his surrogate mother.
You see April and Ted are not James’ actual parents but his captors. Cult toymakers with a psychotic streak, producing the 20-year running show from a shuttered sound stage, they are the authors of James’ Brigsby-centered brainwashing. Outside of a strangely chilly suppertime handshake ritual, you wouldn’t sense a stroke of lacking love or malice in their childrearing. In fact, the Brigsby television show they proffer offers plenty of lessons about good triumphing over evil. As well as the importance of organic food and algebra. After James is suddenly “rescued” from the bunker, his fake parents hauled away for a long stint in prison, there is no question, they have left a mark. A Brigsby-shaped hole that demands filling.
Brisgby Bear, while excavating as much comedy as possible from these tragic circumstances, becomes suddenly heartfelt and tingly. James’ struggle to reconnect with his real family, including a hopeful Dad (Matt Walsh) who has carefully curated a list of things that they never got a chance to do together, a Mom (Michaela Watkins) struggling to accept James’ uncomfortably childish and media-obsessed ways and an initially standoffish sister (Ryan Simpkins) who is more weirded out by the situation than pleased to have her brother home, is both painfully funny and cringingly awkward. A deft directorial hand allows the discomfort and comedy to coalesce, with suppressed laughs butting against tender emotional waves. You’re never quite sure what to cackle at and where to take pity and that’s part of what makes Brigsby work as well as it does.
While James navigates his new world, his attachment to the #FakeNews bear program grows rather than fades. However, unlike the real world, the universe in which James’ lives is an overwhelming loving and forgiving place. One that champions creativity and reaches outside the box to solve emotional problems. Resident cool kid Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) eagerly befriends social sore thumb James, winging him about his first party before eventually aiding him in the making of a DIY Brigsby movie; one of his sister’s friends feeds him his first drug (molly) and gives him a sexual experience not soon to be forgotten; even the kindly local police detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) dusts off his acting chops to help with James’ movie project. It’s all very cute, very fun, very heartwarming, entirely impractical and sadly unrealistic as this sugarplum world may be.
Cutting through an able cast of comedic talent, Mooney takes the responsibility of starring in his own movie seriously and shines front and center. He’s harnessed the weird, socially uncomfortable character types he’s returned to over and over again to craft a character who is genuinely oddball but irresistibly sweet. He’s a boy transitioning into a man, someone out of his depth but stubbornly committed to his dreams. In that regard, Brigsby is fundamentally the story of any creative type who has taken the risk to pursue acting or directing or screenwriting. Somehow who has put themselves on the line and been mocked and laughed at. James is that person, except obsessed with a humanoid teddy bear.
Watching Brigsby Bear is like stepping into an alternative reality. One where good is omnipresent and where people, no matter their flaws and quirks and misgivings, are genuinely likable. Even the hard ass cop eventually melts. Like a Forest Gump for millennials, the biggest “flaw” in Brigsby is that it is simply too nice. Everyone gets off the hook. Even James’ captors come across as misguided but well-intentioned parental figures rather than the deranged, manipulative monsters that childnappers indeed are. There’s a strange disconnect latent in James’ saga, a lingering message that excuses bad behavior and justifies the most damaging of mental and emotional crimes but, if you’re able to overlook his somewhat glaring detail, Brigsby Bear rewards its viewers and then some. Because as far as dramatic comedy with a heart goes, Brigsby Bear is a strange triumph. Odd, creative and good-to-its-core, this story of offbeat obsession blooms into something both sincere and original. Oh and you get to hear Mark Hammill make lots of silly voices.
CONCLUSION: Wildly weird yet total feel good comfort food, ‘Brigsby Bear’ overwhelms with sheer, almost reckless, positivity but fails to properly address some of the more troubling consequences essential to its story. But Kyle Mooney and the cast shine nonetheless introducing enough idiosyncrasies and odd personality to this dramatic indie comedy to make it a truly one-of-a-kind affair not to be missed.