Like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Brigsby Bear takes a story that should be utterly horrific and mines it for comedy instead. That’s about all they have in common, however. While Schmidt uses its premise to explore outlandish characters and joke-a-second madcap comedy, Brigsby shoots for heartwarming absurdity with a much softer approach to its humor.
The premise is a bit on the complicated side. Kyle Mooney, who came up with the story and co-wrote the script, plays James, an adult who lives with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) in an underground bunker isolated from the rest of the world. His father leaves for work every morning donning a gas mask, and his entire world and education revolves around a goofy children’s show (with a surprisingly deep mythology) called Brigsby Bear.
One night, a group of cops - or “Soldiers”, as James calls them - bust in to arrest James’ parents and take him to safety. It turns out he was abducted while very young and now he must meet his real family (a mom and dad played by Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh and a grumpy teenage sister played by Ryan Simpkins) and get acquainted with the larger world outside the bunker.
Mooney plays a character who seems neither irrevocably traumatized nor angry by his ordeal. He’s weird but open, unsure but not self-conscious or embarrassed by how different he is than everyone else. In fact, during the film’s first act his extreme calm makes one wonder if he’s even capable of big emotions.
This only lasts until James realizes no one’s heard of his beloved Brigsby Bear, as it was a show made exclusively for him by his “dad”. Rather than face a world without new episodes of his show - and rather than see it as a negative symbol of his imprisonment - James decides to make his very own Brigsby Bear movie, and the naked, innocent enthusiasm with which he chases this goal brings those around him closer to his orbit.
To make all this work on the emotional level the movie needs, Brigsby Bear takes great liberties when it comes to human psychology, the kindness of teenagers and law enforcement. Almost none of the film is realistic, but that’s also not its aim.
Brigsby Bear’s greatest strength is in its performances. If you can’t handle Kyle Mooney’s awkward schtick on Saturday Night Live, you’re going to have a rough time here, though he does properly modulate it to match the movie’s tone. Mark Hamill is a delight as a person who did something horrific to a whole host of people… but also doesn’t seem like that bad a guy. The real MVP of the film is Greg Kinnear as the cop who first introduces James to the world and later gets his life’s second wind as an actor in James’ film.
It is a slight movie, but it’s not totally without layers. I keep thinking about the quality of Brigsby Bear itself, and how an entire entertainment industry was created for just one viewer and appears to have been a valid creative endeavor for James’ fake dad, one he inadvertently passed on to his fake son, who makes it his mission to share it with others rather than have it just to himself. I’d love to see a sequel where the show becomes a phenomenon and gets James’ parents out of jail early.
But for now, we just have this movie. And it’s a sweet one filled with well-earned laughs and people with big hearts, even the villains.