I’ve seen a lot of weird movies in my day. Last year’s “Swiss Army Man,” in which a castaway befriends a corpse, was one of the weirdest. But “Brigsby Bear” is probably even stranger… not to mention an absolutely wonderful, wonderful film.
How to describe this off-kilter comedy? Well, first I’d say that while it’s made by a bunch of people known for comedy, and it indeed does have many wry moments, it really isn’t a humorous film. It’s an unusually emotional experience that centers around a disconnected character who gradually finds a way to insert himself into a world where he’s always been an observer.
It’s also a very hard movie to review without giving away key bits you should experience for yourself. I’ll try to give you the premise without all the moving pieces.
James (Kyle Mooney) is a 30ish man who is still very much a boy in most ways that are meaningful. He lives in isolation with some folks (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who are loving but a little distant. His only real experience of the world beyond their desert bunker is “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” a cheesy kids’ TV show in which a guy in a bear costume with an enormous head leads the audience through weekly adventures involving intergalactic space adventure, while also learning some life lessons, and maybe a little grammar and math.
Think of “Barney” mixed with a heavy dollop of “Star Wars” and “Sesame Street,” with the production values of Canadian cable access.
The villain is Sunsnatcher, who looks like an orange planetoid with a face and goatee; one of Brigsby’s key allies is Goody Goose (a total visual rip-off of Donald Duck); and James has literally grown up with the Smiles Sisters, twins with telekinetic powers.
(James has fallen in love with Arielle Smiles, but is indifferent to Nina.)
James is utterly obsessed with the show, now deep into the 700s of episodes, and hosts an online fan club for Brigsby followers to argue about the very convoluted mythology and plot lines, much like people do about “Game of Thrones.” His bedroom is full of Brigsby swag, right down to his clothes and bedsheets.
Anyway, through a series of circumstances James is pushed out into the greater world, where he finds himself with a new family he doesn’t really know. He’s also very curious as to why nobody seems to know anything about Brigsby, which as far as he knew was the most popular show there is (not to mention the only one).
Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh play his parents, desperate to reconnect after such a long separation. Ryan Simpkins plays his sister, Aubrey, deep into her own teenage issues and resentful of so much of the spotlight being shifted onto her sibling, who disappeared long before she was even born.
Claire Danes plays the therapist assigned to help James transition into his new life, and Greg Kinnear is the detective on the case, who becomes involved in an extracurricular capacity. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Alexa Demie play friends of Aubrey’s who get sucked into his orbit. Andy Samberg (also a producer) and Kate Lyn Sheil turn up in small roles as people who cross James’ path.
Mooney, who also co-wrote the script with Kevin Costello, is a wonder as James. With his spaghetti curls and glasses, he resembles Napoleon Dynamite’s less assertive kid brother. His awkwardness and naivete are nth level off-putting, yet somehow we find ourselves caring about this peculiar little man.
Dave McCary, a rookie as a feature film director, manages to balance a very tenuous tone that includes shadings of tragedy, mirth, resentfulness and the purest joy. “Brigsby Bear” is one of the oddest, and oddly satisfying, things to see at the cinema.