Brigsby Bear is an offbeat comedy with a large beating heart at its center in the form of Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney
Kyle Mooney is arguably the most underrated repertory cast member on Saturday Night Live. Since joining the cast in 2013, many of his sketches written with frequent collaborator and long-time friend Beck Bennet have been relegated to the pre-shot ten to one spot or simply cut for time. However, his specific brand of awkward 80s infused humor has become a favorite among the fans watching the sketches online. And I am one of those fans. While his sketches don’t often have much of an undertone other than commenting specifically on 80s and 90s era pop culture, Brigsby Bear, which he co-wrote and stars in, has a huge amount of heart at the center of its oddball plot and humor.
James is a 25-year-old man-child who spends his days watching and carefully analyzing the 24 seasons of “Brigsby Bear,” a show only presented on VHS about a magical bear and his adventures across the universe battling the evil Sun Snatcher. The show is an odd blend of 80s children shows ranging from “Barney” to “Captain Planet.” Still, James worships the show. Partially because it’s the only show he’s ever seen. He spends his days putting together presentations about “Brigsby,” recording recaps for the online “Brigsby Bear” forums, and filling his room with memorabilia. However, the show’s origins are a lot more sinister than they seem. “Brigsby Bear” is the invention of his “parents” Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), who are revealed to have kidnapped James when he was an infant. The couple used the show as a tool to keep James from asking questions about the world outside their underground bunker, which explains the strange lines like “curiosity is an unnatural emotion” and lessons like only masturbating twice a day. Simply put, “Brigsby Bear” is responsible for James’ development and is his only connection to the outside world.
One night, while James is sitting on the roof of the bunker (wearing an air mask since he was told the outside world was toxic), he sees a squad of police cars approach the compound where they arrest Ted and April and take James away. Usually, this would be a spoiler. But all this happens within the first ten minutes of the film. Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear, great here) explains to James the circumstances of his captivity and returns him to his biological parents, Greg (Matt Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins), and his sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). From there, the film turns into a fish-out-of-water comedy akin to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. However, unlike that show, Brigsby Bear flirts with the darker side of the subject. James’ lack of understanding of the outside world is both hilarious and devastating, particularly his obsession with “Brigsby Bear,” which he finally finds out was a show only made for him to see.
What makes Brigsby Bear such a unique and original take on the subject, though, is that it toes the very thin line between making light of the dark subject and delivering some real perspective on it. Though James is overwhelmed by his situation, he’s more concerned with the fact that the show will never continue. So, he takes it upon himself to finish the story along with Aubrey’s friend Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., seen very briefly in Spider-Man Homecoming this year), who has become as interested in the show as James. His parents and psychiatrist Emily (Claire Danes) are concerned that James is holding on to a show that was essentially used as a mind control device by his captors. However, it becomes clear that in finishing the story, James is working through his transition the best way he knows how. In that respect, the movie becomes a remarkably thoughtful meditation on trauma and how we deal with it.
Mooney, though underrated on SNL, finally gets the chance to show that he is a comedic actor with force behind him. He brings his endearingly awkward persona that underlines so many of his characters to the movie but adds a sympathetic edge to it. Though he mostly shuts down when he first meets his new family, he does know how to do one thing: talk about Brigsby. It’s those two mental states that James flips between that make this movie so charming. His passion for the show is commendable. You end up rooting for him to complete it.
There is a surprising lack of conflict in the film that allows its sincerity to come through without veering into self-importance. Director Dave McCary tells the film with little cynicism. Like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the people behind the film love their main character and want him to succeed, which translates beautifully on screen. In the end, there is a striking amount of hope and friendship at the center of Brigsby Bear. Which makes sense considering the inspiration of the eponymous show ends with those lessons. Mooney’s James overcomes his adversity with creativity and teaches us a lesson about sympathy that for once feels genuine. Though he’s just a normal guy that wears t-shirts tucked into his pants, he’s the kind of hero we need today.