Comedian Kyle Mooney’s Brigsby Bear is an odd little film. In fact, the SNL writer/performer’s comedy is so unusually odd, it poses a dilemma: What do you tell without spoiling things for those who want to know nothing? On the other hand, by knowing nothing, how would you decide whether you’ll want to see the film in the first place?
It’s not that the movie contains great surprises, or even clever twists and turns. Hardly. But its deliberate, slow-paced, deadpan, eccentric form is so peculiar, those enticed by such a singularly one-off style of subject and how it’s being told will benefit from knowing little in advance. Those who don’t warm to off-centered, flaky styles of comedy will need to steer clear. Seriously. The following should help you decide where you stand.
Start with the opening act. It’s the setup, so don’t consider what you read as a plot-spoiler; everything explained in this paragraph is revealed fairly soon. James Pope was kidnapped from hospital at birth. His kidnappers, Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) whisk him off to a desert bunker, the kind that survivalists might build to hide away from society off the beaten path. Posing as his parents, the couple raise the boy (Kyle Mooney) into manhood. He may now be in his mid-twenties, but he’s still a boy; an innocent with no knowledge of the outside world, believing that to wander outside of the bunker is to expose himself to toxic air.
His only source of entertainment is a TV show delivered to his bedroom once a week on VHS. It’s called Brigsby Bear, and it’s the kind of low-budget, studio-bound, video taped show public television might have produced in the seventies. Brigsby is a human-sized Teddy Ruxpin kind of character. Each week the bear has a new interplanetary adventure with its own life lesson to learn, such as “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion’ Young James has loved it all his life. The problem is, it’s not a real show. It’s made by his faux dad, Ted. Brigsby Bear has an audience of one.
And then, James’ world is turned inside out: The FBI arrive.
The authorities arrest Ted and April for kidnapping, then introduce James not only to the real world but also to his real parents. But among the many adjustments James will have to face, there’s one major problem that no one could ever have foreseen. “Everyone says they’re trying to help me,” complains James with heartfelt emotion to the police, “But no one’s got me the new episode of Brigsby!”
As you might tell, this fish-out-of-water tale of a man-child obsessed with a TV show that no one else has ever seen is an audience divider. Not everyone takes to deadpan to the degree that Brigsby Bear delivers, no matter how sweet its intentions. In a mainstream theater, audiences who do will be easy to detect; they’ll be the ones seated in small pockets, grouped together, scattered around, occasionally laughing while those around them remain silent. It’s like watching an SNL short where everyone plays it straight; you can see there’s humor within, but you’re waiting for the silliness to get out of the way while waiting for the funny. Despite its intelligence, for many, Brigsby Bear is going to feel just like that, but instead of lasting only five minutes, it continues for ninety-five more.
There are a couple of ways you could interpret the themes that Mooney and his co-writer Kevin Costello are going for. One could be about the idea of freedom and what you can achieve with a little know-how and some financial help from those happy to give. Another could be about the unhealthy obsession with junk culture and how some embrace it tighter than they should. They’re the ones who allow it to determine everything they do and say in their day to day life. Then again, maybe it’s really about neither. It’s difficult to say. Maybe it’s meant to simply show the joy of someone choosing to be happily deluded.
Speaking personally, it’s the deadpan approach to comedy every time. The off-beat and weird are always welcome, plus, Mooney has proven to be naturally funny on SNL. But still, Brigsby Bear didn’t work; not for me. Mooney’s James continually relating everything to something Brigsby did or said often proves irritating. But comedy is personal. And if this sounds like your kind of humor, in this particular case, maybe you should just sit back and allow it to unfold before you without analysis. As the bear teaches in one of the weekly videos, in the end it’s best not to think about it; after all, curiosity is an unnatural emotion. With Brigsby Bear, lesson learned.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 100 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)