Most comedians make their leap from ‘Saturday Night Live’ to movies with something safe. If it’s not an outright adaptation of one of their ‘SNL’ characters, then it’s at least a mainstream comedy on-brand with the show’s tone. Perpetual hipster parody Kyle Mooney went in a very different direction. ‘Brigsby Bear’, his cinematic debut as co-writer/star, is a melancholy, moving and even disturbing comedy more in tune with a comedic outsider than someone trained in a mainstream institution like ‘SNL’. It’s also one of the cleverest comedies of the summer.
The story opens with Mooney playing a regressed yet happy young man named James who lives in an isolated home with his eccentric parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). He obsesses over a children’s show called ‘Brigsby Bear’. It’s an odd sci-fi educational odyssey about a teddy bear going on space adventures that impart not-so-subtle life lessons. It’s a weird obsession to be sure and the movie is about to get weirder. You see, the cops burst into this family’s home one night because James was kidnapped as a baby and raised by his abductors as their own. Even weirder, they actually created the entire ‘Brigsby Bear’ series themselves as homegrown entertainment for their kidnapped son. Obviously, James has a tough time adjusting to the world after that bombshell, despite extra help from his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), a therapist (Claire Danes), and an enthusiastically kind detective (Greg Kinnear). The thing is that James can’t just get over his ‘Brigsby Bear’ addiction. In fact, he wants to make a movie that’ll finish the story once and for all.
OK, whew! That’s a dark and twisted setup for a comedy, especially one designed to skew towards a somewhat inspirational finale. Somehow, Mooney, his co-writer Kevin Costello and director Dave McCary find a tone that fits. The film explores a particularly bizarre tale of recovering from intense childhood abuse as well as the odd and even sick fascinations that pop culture properties can hold over those who devote their youth to them. Without trivializing or condescending, the team finds a way to tell this story without ever crossing a line into the icky. The movie rides that line carefully and emerges with something uniquely satisfying. In fact, it’s even a rather sweet and touching little story in the end. That shouldn’t have been possible.
So much of the success of ‘Brigsby Bear’ comes down to Kyle Mooney’s performance. He’s been doing a “tragically unaware, privileged white doofous” routine for a while on ‘SNL’, which overlaps with this character. However, Mooney isn’t just playing a dork who doesn’t know better. He’s playing a lost soul and tragic innocent. The character can be deeply moving and even admirable in his optimistic obsession with Brigsby. His refusal to give up on a fixture of his childhood imagination, no matter how unsettling the origin, proves to be charming and sweet. It’s both a funny and tragic role that Mooney delivers perfectly. He never plays too hard for laughs or tears, instead finding a middle ground that makes you want to laugh and cry all at once. It’s a rather wonderful bit of acting that proves this guy should have a long life after his ‘SNL’ tenure.
The rest of the cast are all strong as well, generally overqualified for their supporting roles. It’s clear that the recognizable names signed on more for the concept than their parts. Everyone fits into the world of broken children that the filmmakers created, but little time is spent outside of James’ journey, nor should it be.
The best supporting work comes from Mark Hamill, in a performance both believably off-kilter and uncomfortably likable. He never plays a monster, just a confused man. Somehow it clicks. He’s also ideally cast for his broad range of vocal characterizations that he uses to fill the Brigsby universe (including a touch of The Joker). That goes a long way to selling the fictionalized Public Access fantasy series, as does Dave McCary’s design and direction. It’s rooted in the fetishized cheap 1980s TV production comedy that has defined so many Adult Swim series, yet has a unique texture. It’s something like ‘Mr. Rogers’ on friendly hallucinogens, recognizable to a certain world of budget children’s entertainment while also creepily distorted. The fictional series mixes magic, camp comedy and subtle horror, a combination that shouldn’t work, but just like everything else in the movie unexpectedly blends into a satisfying whole.
Undoubtedly, some viewers will despise ‘Brigsby Bear’. It’s a little too dark for the mainstream and a little too uplifting for those who prefer their entertainment bleak. The comedy was designed to provoke, but it also has a heart too big for cynicism. Fascinating ideas get battered around, perhaps a little too many. Not every question is answered nor is every theme fully explored. However, the central character remains so eccentrically intriguing, warm and funny that it’s easy to get pulled into strange story through to its unexpected conclusion. ‘Brigsby Bear’ is the sort of first film that would be considered a career-launching debut were it not for the fact that the core players have been working on ‘SNL’ for years. This team hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but they have proven to be ballsy comedic filmmakers willing to traverse touchy ground.