It’s never a good thing when a production studio’s logo is the funniest part of a comedy, but, in fairness, the guys from The Lonely Island came up with a pretty good one. If only the rest of Dave McCary’s “Brigsby Bear,” a characteristically sweet and off-kilter vehicle for “SNL” star Kyle Mooney, were as amusing or subversive as we’ve come to expect from the companies behind it. (Sony Pictures Classics disagrees; it acquired the film today for worldwide rights.)
Mooney plays James, who initially seems like the son that every parent fears they might raise. An emotionally stunted 25-year-old man-child who lives at home and (literally) never goes outside, James sits in his room all day and obsessively re-watches VHS tapes of his favorite educational television series, “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” a new episode of which arrives at his house each week. And the strangest part about all of this isn’t the fact that every inch of James’ bedroom is outfitted with Brigsby merch, it’s that someone is still out there working on the show. The endless story of a humanoid bear who — with the help of his two weirdly eroticized female companions — travels the galaxy fighting his planet-sized nemesis and imparting odd moral lessons directly into the camera (“curiosity is an unnatural emotion!” is one memorable tagline), “Brigsby Bear Adventures” is what Barney might have looked like if it had been written on acid and aired via public-access.
But James lives for it. He knows the show’s nonsense mythology by heart. In part, that’s because “Brigsby Bear Adventures” is the only show that’s ever on TV in the underground bunker where his family has lived all of his life (something about the air in the outside world being toxic). His father (Mark Hamill), his mother (Jane Adams), and their weird pre-dinner handshake ritual are the only things that James knows. And they’re all lies, which James discovers when the F.B.I. breaks into the compound and informs him that his “parents” kidnapped him as an infant and trapped him an subterranean cave. And “Brigsby Bear Adventures?” James is the only person who’s ever seen it. His fake father made it just for him.
The rest of the film unfolds like a dull and slightly deranged cross between “Blast From The Past” and “Be Kind Rewind” as James is reintroduced to his birth family and convinces them to help him make a Brigsby movie as part of his one-note quest for closure. Mooney, doubling down on the hyper-sincere guilelessness that backstops most of his sketch comedy characters, makes for a fun fish-out-of-water, and the disturbing circumstances under which he was raised are milked for decent laughs. “It’s too bad you weren’t abducted,” he sweetly tells his sister (Ryan Simpkins), “because I bet we would have had fun together.”
This is what the movie does best, and it’s easy to imagine how much sillier and more successful it could have been had the script — which Mooney co-wrote with childhood friend Kevin Costello — felt content to center itself around jokes about James trying to fit in with the local teenagers. Listening to him cluelessly parrot phrases like “dope-ass shit” is fun the first three or four times you hear it, and “Brigsby” shows promise when it paints itself as the ironic “Encino Man” of its generation.
But when James begins shooting shooting his Brigsby epic, the film instantly sacrifices everything that makes it singular, and exchanges genuine weirdness for familiar quirk. Greg Kinnear, playing a cop who dreams of being an actor, is an early red flag of drift toward nauseating indie cliches. It’s frustrating to watch the story loses all sense of shape as James begins convincing people to help him, his masterpiece coming together in a series of decreasingly clever scenes in which our hero inspires his new friends (and old relatives) to follow their own dreams.
There’s so little conflict that it feels as if all of these characters have been waiting for an eccentric comedy that would come along and sweep them up, and it’s no surprise that the best scene of the film’s back half finds James meeting one of the actresses from “Brigsby Bear Adventures” (Kate Lyn Sheil) and learning that her real life takes precedence over the fantasy she helped create for him.
While too silly and open hearted to hate, “Brigsby Bear” begins with a premise that’s weird enough to be good, but settles for a weak trajectory that isn’t good enough to be weird. For a movie that celebrates imagination as a means of escape, this tepid comedy doesn’t have the creative energy required not to fall into its own traps.
“Brigsby Bear” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and will be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.