Oddball indie comedy looks at the dangers of nostalgia and the joys of fandom
Directed by Dave McCary
Cast: Kyle Mooney, Matt Walsh, Mark Hamill, Jane Adams, Michaela Watkins
The first step in understanding the oddball indie comedy Brigsby Bear is noticing that it’s produced by The Lonely Island. The viral video-making comedy trio (consisting of Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone) kept “Saturday Night Live” afloat through much of the early 2000s with their digital shorts “Lazy Sunday,” “Dick In a Box,” “I Just Had Sex,” “YOLO” and others. They followed that up with a pair of less-than-successful mainstream features, Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. With Brigsby Bear, however, the trio scales back to its smalltime cult comedy roots and brings in some fellow “SNL” alumni: director Dave McCary (who gave us “Epic Rap Battles of History”) and actor-writer Kyle Mooney (who contributed “420 Weed Guy” and Casey Affleck to the sketch show’s roster).
On the one hand, there’s a certain pleasure to organically discovering the strange world this film creates for itself by simply walking into the theater cold and watching it. It’s a charming little indie dramedy about memory and creativity and family and really weird kids’ TV shows. And if you’re the adventurous type, you should just go check it out. On the other hand, most people need more than vague assurances. If you’re one of them, you’ll have to just read on and live with the spoilers.
In Brigsby Bear the curly-haired, stubble-chinned Mr. Mooney plays James, a wide-eyed innocent of a 25-year-old. The principal reason for James’ naivety is that he was kidnapped as a baby and raised in an underground bunker out in the desert by a couple of cult-like survivalists (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). James’ foster parents, Ted and April, are geniuses and try to raise James as an intelligent young man. But they’ve also got some nutty ideas and keep him in the dark about the true nature of the outside world. In fact, for the last couple of decades, James’ only cultural touchstone has been a whacked-out live-action kids’ show called “The Brigsby Bear Adventures.” Brigsby is a talking bear who goes on various low-budget adventures across the galaxy, delivering helpful (and sometimes strangely specific) lessons along the way.
One day James’ tightly enclosed universe comes to a crashing end when FBI agents show up, arrest Ted and April and return James to his long-lost birth parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins). For James it’s a major culture shock: Different parents, a world not actually irradiated by nuclear fallout and thousands of other living, breathing human beings. But James’ biggest problem is that he can’t watch “Brigsby Bear” anymore. Turns out that “Brigsby Bear” was the sole creation of his highly imaginative adoptive father. The only person who ever watched the show—all 700-odd episodes—was James.
“Brigsby Bear” traffics in an odd sort of nostalgia. We all have cultural hallmarks from our childhood—be they “The Flintstones,” “Scooby-Doo,” “Thundercats,” “Animaniacs” or “Powerpuff Girls.” But we’re able to connect with others who share those same hallmarks. Poor James is incapable of conversing about anything other than “Brigsby Bear.” But no one else knows what he’s talking about. Unable to move on with his new life, James decides the only way to grow up is to finish off the adventures of Brigsby Bear by shooting his own feature-length sequel with the help of his new friends and family.
Even vaguely alert indie film goers will recognize Brigsby Bear as an unapologetically nerdy blending of Napoleon Dynamite, The Room and Be Kind Rewind. At times, admittedly, the film wears its quirkiness like a $300 pair of Nikes. There’s a bit too much self-consciousness in the dorkiness of its main character and in the hipster profundity in his Quixote-esque quest (which, of course, goes viral on the internet). But the overall intent is sincere and openhearted enough to overcome the script familiarities and character tropes. There’s a fairly sizable lesson here about the dangers of living in our past, and Brigsby Bear does a credible job navigating the sometimes rickety territory between its out-there setup and its warmly emotional climax. Of course, it helps if you know what it means to be an unabashed fanboy or fangirl (of whatever) yourself. In which case, you may find yourself obsessing over “Brigsby Bear” as much as this film’s guileless, good-natured goof of a hero.