SONY PICTURES CLASSICS (2017)
Director: Dave McCary
Starring: Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear, Andy Samberg, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Chance Crimin, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Alexa Demie
“Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.”
Curiosity swarms all through Brigsby Bear – a highly original movie with an interesting premise and switch. Veteran SNL alumni, Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney, team up for their feature-length debut offering about a twentysomething man’s utter obsession with a low-budget children’s show named Brigsby Bear. It’s educational, philosophical and entertaining – just what you want from a kid’s show.
But it isn’t quite that simple.
James (Pope) lives in isolation with his parents, Ted (Hamill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams), way out in the dusty deserts. He is told the outside world is dangerous and the air is toxic, therefore he must remain within the underground bunker. Luckily, he has a link to the outside world – a children’s educational show called Brigsby Bear – a heroic Teddy Ruxspin-esque bear, who along with twin sisters Arielle and Nina Smiles (Kate Lyn Sheil), battles the nefarious Sun Snatcher (subtle…) to save the world. Every inch of his bedroom is filled with memorabilia, images, collectibles and his clothes are emblazoned with Brigsby and its various slogans – it’s Brigsby-mania in James’s world. He devotes his time watching the 700-plus episodes and devouring the new weekly episodes before discussing the minutiae of the plot with fans worldwide on an antiquated PC. Everything changes one evening when the FBI pay the bunker a visit.
James’s world is shattered when he is informed he was abducted at birth by Ted and April and has been living a lie. Worse still, he is told the Brigsby Bear show isn’t real and there are no other fans – he is the sole audience. Returned to his biological family, James’s struggle to assimilate is all too apparent, with regular discussions with hard psychiatrist Emily (Danes) leading to further alienation, until he decides to fulfill his destiny – produce a Brigsby Bear movie and finish the story that has shaped his life.
Brigsby Bear delivers an original, smart and warm experience, and one of the more unique of the year. Whilst the narrative plunges into convention as the acts transition, the appealing performance of Mooney ensures the movie never strays into folly or total whimsy.
Thankfully, Mooney has previous with the behaviours of the character James, and because of that, he never becomes a parody or shallow caricature. Rather than playing a dumb, bumbling goon (which the character could easily have been), Mooney delivers a performance bristling with a smart awkwardness and charming naïveté. It’s an engaging and emotional display. The performances of Walsh, Watkins and Simpkins as James’s family are all strong, as well as supporting roles from Lendeborg Jr. and Demie as the loyal cohorts. Anything with Mark Hamill in is cool with me, and his voice acting shines throughout (and physical acting too).
With its alarming subtext, Brigsby Bear had a huge chance of wallowing in pessimism but the writing talents of Mooney and Kevin Costello ensure positivity shines through. The movie strives to be engaging as it champions the idea of creativity and embracing fandom and pop culture – if a show or movie is what shapes you or defines you, embrace it and never be ashamed. It’s refreshing to see and the 80’s vibe compliments the message (and movie) perfectly. James’s transition from isolated life to the modern world is a perfect storm of the 80s thrown in the present day – he looks as if he has been dropped into 2017, and it works. As for the movies overall visual, the looming shots of the desert during Brigsby filming look great, as do the camping scenes in the woodland. The titular bear’s retro image is appealing and I want one, simply put. There’s a strange menace that accompanies the VHS shows, and the bunker is interesting, however, we don’t see enough of it.
Mark Hamill is a movie celebrating pop culture? Win.
Another key element of the movie's success is the ambiguity and mystery that it brings. The reason for James’s abduction is never explicitly stated, neither is the actual kidnapping shown. His life before the movie isn’t explored, therefore he himself is an enigma that only begins to show natural cracks towards the movie's end. His biological family isn't explained in terms of past exposition, they’re just there and are ecstatic to have their son back. The lack of wordy exposition is a positive rather than a hindrance, it’s more fun sometimes to watch and imagine.
The movie doesn’t ever really explode into life, if you will, rather deciding to take a slower pace to fill its 97-minute runtime. The slow-nature and endearing narrative that work so well together may not be for everyone’s taste – the comedy is subtle rather than laugh-out-loud, the buddy elements may be too saccharine for some. Could the writers have delved further into James’s disconnect with the real world? Probably, yes. Could they possibly have been bolder considering the looming subtext? Possibly. For this reviewer, the movie worked just fine as it is presented, all leading to a poignant and quite beautiful conclusion.
In a world crying out for original movies, Brigsby Bear fits the bill and more. It’s destined to become a cult classic, rather than an embraced blockbuster, and that works just fine. Mooney is fantastic leading the movie and there’s plenty of warmth and positivity to be found here, as well as pure celebration of fandom – and that’s never a bad thing.
Be like Brigsby.
November 2nd 2017