Movie review: Bizarre ‘Brigsby Bear’ makes perfect sense
Mix broad elements of “Room,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “The Truman Show” and you’ll have something strange, something intriguing — something like “Brigsby Bear.” That’s the title of the darkly shaded satire concocted by the creative minds of “Saturday Night Live” staffers Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary. With Mooney cast as the star and McCary serving as his director, the duo — along with Mooney’s co-writer Kevin Costello — use comedy and vivid imaginations to skewer a disturbing reality about a generation of latchkey kids raised not by parents, but by television. AKA, the one-eyed monster.
That their tale is told with a disarming gentleness and eerie goodwill, only adds to the creepiness they expose lurking in the consumer-friendly mind control that is children’s TV. The conduit is a giant, overstuffed bear named Brigsby, who looks like a refugee from a summer camp for college mascots. Like H.R. Pufnstuf and his like, Brigsby is a life-size puppet out to keep the Witchiepoos of the make-believe world at bay. Abetted by his two lovely human assistants, twins Arielle and Nina (Kate Lyn Sheil), Brigsby both entertains and teaches his kiddo worshippers. You know — the role busy, over-committed parents were supposed to play.
The only thing that separates Brigsby from Pufnstuf is that the former only has an audience of one: Mooney’s 25-year-old manchild, James. Every week, James receives via mail a new Brigsby adventure on VHS tape, which he watches from the hermetically sealed underground bunker he “shares” with his mom (Jane Adams) and dad (Mark Hamill, who held his own sway over kids back in the 1970s as Luke Skywalker). But as we and James quickly learn — during a nighttime police raid — Ted and April are not his real parents. Rather, they are his kidnappers and his keepers.
Returned to his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), James is understandably confused. But he’s also obsessed with finding the next episode of “Brigsby Bear,” the show that was actually produced as a form of mind control by his child-snatching fake dad who provided almost all the voices and built the cheesy sets in a nearby, makeshift studio. James’ real parents, and the dedicated, aspiring Shakespearean-actor cop (Greg Kinnear doing his best work in years) who rescued him, try to make the boy see that Brigsby is a fraud. But James — in his vulnerable mental state (enter Claire Danes as his shrink) — refuses to believe them. So he sets out to finish the story of Brigsby all on his own with cell-phone camera in hand.
I told you it was bizarre. Yet, in the hands of a director as sure as McCary, it all makes perfect sense — and isn’t nearly as confusing as I described. In fact, it’s rather touching. It’s also extremely sad, at least for a comedy, as the movie methodically goes about proving its points about kids TV being a subtle form of brainwashing. What makes this trick even more admirable is how Mooney and McCary send a heavy “Ed Wood” vibe by conversely showing how James’ obsession — and the creativity it springs — is a powerful form of self-therapy, fulfilling the need of the muted to shout their fears, anxieties and affections on a multi-platform outlet like YouTube. And once James’ “Brigsby” — the movie within the movie — hits social media, the bear is suddenly the bell of the ball.
Another element “Brigsby Bear,” the real movie, shares with “Ed Wood” is how creating art — no matter how crude and inane — is a way of bringing disparate people together, including James and his resentful, biological sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), who along with her BFF, Meredith (Alexa Demie), gradually discover James isn’t the weirdo they thought, but a real, genuine Pied Piper driven by his contagious love for movie-making.
It’s all very meta. It’s also very entertaining. But like a lot of these edgy, off-the-wall comedies, including the upcoming “Ingrid Goes West,” what transpires suffers from the twin distractions of severe tonal problems and a tendency to be more amusing than funny. Yet, they suck you into their elliptical orbits, refusing to let go. And the thing that holds you is their ability to say something important about how much electronics have caused modern society to devolve into a spectrum where reality and fantasy blur into a shaky truth that just might destroy us all.
Cast includes Kyle Mooney, Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill and Jane Adams.
(PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying.)