"Brigsby Bear" Delights Lightly

Brigsby Bear is a comedy about a man in his thirties who learns that the only people he’s ever known, his loving parents, are actually two criminals who kidnapped him as a baby and brainwashed him into believing the outside world was (literally) toxic. His favorite TV show and the target of his obsessive fanboyism, the hilariously surreal lo-fi production Brigsby Bear, is really a propaganda tool created by his fake father, played by Mark Hammill (who is a joy, although not overburdened with things to do in the film).

Directed by Dave McCary, whose previous experience involves directing Saturday Night Live segments, and written by Kevin Costello and fellow SNL alum Kyle Mooney (who also stars), the film notably eschews the sophomoric humor and lowest-common-denominator laughs one might expect from such a team in favor of an unexpected sincerity and compassion for its characters.

The material (with themes like kidnapping, brainwashing, and alienation) is quite dark, but the film skates lightly above its subject matter, never delving into the heavy implications of its story, or realistically addressing what would be an extreme level of traumatization in the real world. There is no long dark tea-time of the soul for James Pope (Mooney), and Brigsby is by no means a deep movie, but it is sweet and strange and sincere. It’s clear that the creators had a great time making the film, and that director Dave McCary has a great love for the craft of filmmaking.

The movie is sprinkled with SNL alums, with Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins playing Mooney’s newfound birth parents competently, if not transcendently. An extended cameo of Andy Samberg (also a producer of the film) mugging for the camera and generally being Andy Samberg-ish is a bit distracting and unnecessary, but thankfully brief. Greg Kinnear also makes a delightful appearance, and Claire Daines is given a rather slight and thankless role, which she enacts in kind. Mooney himself strikes the perfect tone as James, embodying a blend of childlike naïveté, deadpan emotionality, and social awkwardness that makes him eminently believable as a man who’s lived in an underground bunker away from all but two other humans for over 30 years.

There are flashes of brilliance, particularly in the creativity and charm of the low-budget practical special effects created both for James’s false world and the in-universe Brigsby show—Mark Hamill’s grotesque anthropomorphic moon/evil wizard is a particular treat (as well as a not-so-subtle nod to the OG of experimental low-tech fantasy effects, Georges Méliès).

Viewers looking for something a bit more substantial or subversive might wish that the movie had steered a bit harder into its dark themes and weirdness (and I do not exclude myself from this group), but in the end, Brigsby is a delightfully fun romp that deals with the power behind the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell others, even if it ultimately remains firmly grounded in unnuanced optimism.

Brigsby Bear is in theaters NOW, and if you’re reading this, you should stop what you’re doing and go see it immediately!


Image: Sony Pictures.