By Nathan Evans
‘Brigsby Bear’ is one of those films that’s better the less you know about it going in. With that said, it’s also one of those films that’s almost impossible to write a review about without spoiling. While I’ll do my best to avoid giving the film away entirely, I do have to go into a bit of detail in order to properly critique the movie. So if you want to experience director Dave McCary’s delightful ‘Brigsby Bear’ as intended, stop reading right now and track the film down (a prospect that could prove difficult as the film’s still in limited release, and doesn’t seem as if it’s going to get a wide one). If you’re not averse to mild spoilers, read on. You’ve been warned.
‘Brigsby Bear’ is a love letter to creativity; one wrapped in a disturbingly dark premise that’s delivered with all of the saccharine sweetness of a live action Disney release. The film stars ‘Saturday Night Live’ alum Kyle Mooney as James: a twenty-five year old man who lives in an isolated bunker with his seemingly kind mother and father, portrayed by Jane Adams and the legendary Mark Hamill respectively. James’ sole outlet in his humdrum existence is the only television show he’s ever watched, which just happens to be the only television show being made exclusively for him: ‘The Adventures of Brigsby Bear’; a ‘Barney’-esque children’s show with a lore denser than Tolkien’s Middle Earth books. James’ life is turned upside down when he’s taken from the bunker and thrust into the real world. When he discovers that there are no new episodes of Brigsby coming now that he’s left the bunker, he takes it upon himself to finish the adventures of the hero that’s meant so much to him.
At a glance ‘Brigsby Bear’ seems like yet another cloying indie release that supplants substance with whimsy, but in reality all of the quirkiness and charm the film does possess springs naturally from the truly original premise. Mooney, who not only stars in the film but co-wrote it with his high school buddy Kevin Costello, should be commended for producing something truly unique within a cinematic landscape dominated by adaptations and sequels. As one of ‘SNL’s’ most underrated cast members, Mooney hasn’t gotten much of a chance to show us what he’s made of. With ‘Brigsby’ he’s proven his talents are something to be reckoned with. Not only is his writing sharp, but his performance as the sheltered, sweet James is both touching and authentic.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Mooney is the Joker himself, Mark Hamill. Hamill, a criminally underrated actor who’s career has been relegated to B-films and voice work since his breakout turn in the original ‘Star Wars’ forty years ago, finally gets a part worthy of his talents. His role as the patriarch of James’ idiosyncratic family is dark and complex. Despite the unsettling details we discover about him, Hamill is able to craft a character that’s somehow still likable, successfully convincing us of why someone would do the things he does; and making it believable that someone like James would hold no ill will.
The film is rounded out by a handful of strong supporting performances as well. Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh are great as the couple that takes James in after he’s left the bunker, and newcomer Jorge Lendeborg is charming as one of the first friends James makes in his new life. Unfortunately, Claire Danes is almost entirely wasted as James’ therapist. After a couple of scenes where she attempts to convey the reality of James’ situation to him, the film forgets about her entirely. Luckily, some of the gaps left by her absence are filled in by Greg Kinnear’s performance as a kindly detective out to help James.
Not every performer that shows up in the film is entirely welcome, though. Near the back half of the movie the film features an unnecessary extended cameo from a fellow 'SNL' alum that does nothing but draw attention to itself. I was so caught up in James’ saga and the film’s characters that the appearance of this familiar face served only to pull me out of the film. I have nothing against the actor in question (in fact I’m an active fan), but the film would’ve been better served if they’d cast an unknown to fill this relatively inconsequential part.
One of the movie’s only other missteps is also one of its strengths. As I touched on before, the film has a certain unwillingness to deal with the darker aspects of its premise. While it’s refreshing in these pessimistic times to come across a quality feel good film, I feel this desire for levity allows the film to sidestep some important questions. What exactly would force two people to raise their son in a bunker? Why would a children’s show be their only means of teaching him about the world? Some third question I want to ask but can’t because I’m already giving away too much of the movie? ‘Brigsby Bear’ isn’t interested in the answers. While this strategy results in a film that’s guaranteed to leave you smiling, it’s lacking a touch of substance that could’ve driven it from charming indie territory into a veritable classic.
Despite its slight, somewhat forgettable nature, I can’t help but feel like we need more films like ‘Brigsby Bear’. While I enjoy tentpole blockbusters and thought provoking dramas as much as the next guy, we can never forget that films are supposed to be an escape. That’s exactly what Mooney and McCary have given us: a charming slice of time so sweet it’s virtually impossible to think about anything negative while it’s running. If you want to feel like sunshine and gumdrops, and you can find it, I highly suggest you experience the pleasure that is ‘Brigsby Bear’.
RATING: 4.5 OUT OF 5
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