Film Review: Brigsby Bear

by Carrie Kahn on August 4, 2017

Mooney’s funny and poignant film Bears witness to the restorative power of art 

James (Kyle Mooney) dons the costume of his idol, Brigsby Bear. 

If you watch Saturday Night Live regularly, you know that cast member Kyle Mooney seems like the kind of smart-but-nerdy guy who probably spent his middle school years making goofy action-figure based short films with his friends. Fast forward some 20 years later, and not much has changed, though the results are no doubt exceedingly more polished than his junior high efforts. Mooney, along with his 7th grade buddies Dave McCary and Kevin Costello, has made his first feature film, and, fittingly, Brigsby Bear is a charmer that celebrates the healing power of both art and family.

McCary, an Emmy-nominated writer and director also from SNL, makes his feature film directorial debut here, using a script penned by Mooney and first-time writer Costello. Their initial foray has been rewarded already with accolades at various film festivals throughout this past year, including a Grand Jury Prize nomination from the picture’s Sundance premiere back in January.

Taking inspiration from such low budget 1980s children’s television programs as Pooh Corner and Dumbo’s Circus, the trio have created a film that gently pokes fun at pop culture and its aficionados at the same time it celebrates them. The trio have also cited the old ‘80s, cassette-based children’s talking teddy bear Teddy Ruxpin as an influence on the film, which, of course is immediately obvious from the film’s title.

Ted (Mark Hamill, r.) has raised James (Kyle Mooney) in an isolated bunker.

Brigsby Bear is indeed a similarly styled, cassette-voiced bear, and the star of a low budget kids’ show that aims to teach sometimes befuddling and esoteric science and math concepts to an audience of one. That singular viewer is James (Mooney), who was kidnapped as an infant from his suburban Utah home and raised by the eccentric but loving Ted (Mark Hamill, in a casting coup) and April (Jane Adams) in a completely isolated bunker, cut off from the rest of the world. Ted, a former toy designer who has gone more than slightly off the deep end, creates 736 episodes of the Brigsby Bear show in an abandoned studio, and James has no idea, until much later, after he’s returned to his real family, that he was the program’s sole viewer. Disconcerted at never knowing the outcome of several plot threads of the remarkably complicated show, James sets out to create a final movie to tie up the story, and, at the same time, put his past behind him.

With that premise, then, the film allows several thematic threads to be explored. When James is returned to his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) and sister (Ryan Simpkins), his culture shock and total ignorance of day-to-day suburban life is ripe for the sort of fish-out-of-water humor familiar to viewers of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But James’s plight is treated with respect and sensitivity, especially in scenes in which we realize that a brusque, by-the-book psychologist (Clare Danes, especially icy) may be causing more harm than good.

In contrast, one of the more sympathetic characters is Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear), a wanna-be thespian who develops a soft spot for James, and covertly help him with his Brigsby Bear film project, even though doing so puts Vogel’s job at risk. Kinnear is especially good here, playing a man who deferred his dreams for a safe, nine-to-five job, and who, in James, sees a chance to fulfill a long dormant passion.

James (Kyle Mooney, r.) finds a sympathetic ally in Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear). 

And that theme is ultimately the heart of the movie. When James bonds with his younger sister’s science-fiction loving and aspiring filmmaker friend Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), Spencer seizes on James’s Brigsby project with enthusiastic delight and excitement, which, in turn, helps James come out of his shell and begin to adapt to his new life. Similarly, a very funny scene in a psychiatric hospital (in which Andy Samberg has a small but hilarious cameo) is more than a little reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and has the same effect of making us empathize and cheer for all the hospital’s residents, many, like James, who have had their creative spirits suppressed by well-meaning but often clueless helpers.

Brigsby Bear definitely has its share laughs, thanks to its winning cast; Hamill and Mooney are both especially strong, and the minor characters hold their own as well (Beck Bennett has some scene-stealing moment as a suspicious colleague of Det. Vogel’s). But through its humor, the film makes some serious points about the importance of art in people’s lives – especially in terms of its usefulness as a creative psychological outlet. That Mooney and Co. can deliver such a message without being cloying or heavy-handed is a testament to their own complex understanding of the fundamental nature of film and comedy, and how these art forms can be therapeutic, cathartic, and joyful, for their creators – and their viewers.

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Brigsby Bear opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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