You probably know Kyle Mooney as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, where he plays nerds and needy guys in perfectly capable fashion. That show, however, has given only a glimpse of the awkward, harder-to-categorize sort of comedy that he specialized in with his pal Beck Bennett before he joined SNL. Fortunately, we have movies, and Brigsby Bear is a thoroughly charming odd duck (or bear, rather) that gives us Mooney unfiltered as it expands to AMC Grapevine Mills this weekend.
Mooney plays James, a man who has spent his entire life being raised by his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) in an underground bunker in the middle of the desert in Utah. That ends when the county sheriff raids the place, and James finds out that his parents actually abducted him when he was a baby. As he moves in with his biological parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), many things about the world confuse him, like sex and the internet, but nothing pains him more than discovering the truth about Brigsby Bear, the kids’ TV show he has been watching on grainy VHS tapes since he was little. It seems his fake dad, a former writer for children’s television, filmed all 700+ episodes himself in a distant studio, so now there will be no more shows about this animatronic bear who has adventures in space. That is, until James decides to make a movie continuing Brigsby’s story, a quest that scoops up his disaffected teenage sister (Ryan Simpkins), her classmate who wants to be an animator (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and a police detective (Greg Kinnear) on his case who turns out to be a frustrated actor.
This belongs to a hallowed sub-genre of movies celebrating artists who have a ton of imagination but not necessarily the talent to go with it: Ed Wood, Bowfinger, Son of Rambow, Be Kind Rewind, Hamlet 2, Frank. This is one of the better entries in this company, in large part because first-time director Dave McCary (who migrated to SNL along with Mooney and Bennett) manages the difficult task of controlling the tone of this piece. Maybe James’ movie project comes together a bit too easily, but McCary avoids making this film either too cloying or too self-consciously wacky. His star, too, gives a performance that doesn’t beg for sympathy in a role where that would be very easy. There are low-key, rewarding scenes between James and his sister, as well as with a diner waitress (Kate Lyn Sheil) who acted in the Brigsby Bear TV show when she was a girl, not knowing she was performing for an audience of one. These are balanced out by hijinks, such as when James films an explosion by building a working bomb without telling his colleagues. Then there are also the surreally ragtag glimpses we get of Brigsby Bear, with its 1980s-vintage special effects and its life lessons mixed in with its space adventure — at one point, Brigsby says, “Remember, kids, if you’re having romantic feelings, only touch your penis twice a day.”
The movie does tip its hand early on as James and his fake dad enthusiastically debate the clotted mythology of the Brigsby series. Hamill’s presence in the role underlines the point in red marker, because if any actor would know about obsessive fanbases, it’s him. This is a valentine to the relationships we have with our favorite serialized stories, and how they can lead us to make up our own stories around them. We’re not all that different from James when it comes to our favorite movie franchises, TV shows, or comic book series. Maybe Brigsby Bear doesn’t have much that’s new to say, but its warmth and comic value are awfully hard to deny.
Starring Kyle Mooney and Mark Hamill. Directed by Dave McCary. Written by Kevin Costello and Kyle Mooney. Rated PG-13.