Twee is the word that best describes “Brigsby Bear,” an excessively precious, quirky little indie comedy with a remarkably sentimental streak. It will probably appeal to the crowd that embraced “Napoleon Dynamite,” but its charms might elude most others.
Kyle Mooney, a “Saturday Night Live” regular, plays James, one of those arrested-development man-children so numerous in today’s American pop culture. But unlike so many such characters, James has an excuse for his childishness and naiveté: he was kidnapped as an infant, and has spent twenty-five years living in an underground bunker with his supposed parents Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), who teach him advanced mathematics and warn him about the horrors beyond their walls.
James’ contact with the outside world is limited to watching an educational children’s show called “Brigsby Bear,” in which the eponymous critter—a guy in a big teddy bear suit—engages in animated outer-space adventures, teaching strange life lessons in the process. James is fanatical about the show, keeping tapes of every episode and blogging endlessly about it on the chat rooms he can access on his primitive computer.
His little world comes crashing down, however, when a police raid led by Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) rescues James and leads to the arrest of Ted and April, who are carted off in cuffs. He is soon reunited with his real parents, Greg and Louise Pope (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), along with their cynical daughter Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins).
James has problems confronting the modern world, but the biggest hurdle is that he’s horrified to discover that the “Brigsby Bear” show was made by Ted, an erstwhile toymaker, expressly for him, and there will be no further episodes. He reveals his agitation to Aubrey and her friends at a party, and the idea emerges to make a movie that will provide closure to the series—and by extension, the film suggests, allow James to move on with his life. One of Aubrey’s pals, Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), is an aspiring moviemaker who offers his considerable expertise to the project.
Thus the movie turns into a surrealistic take on the old “let’s put on a show!” plot, with several cutesy twists. One involves convincing Vogel not only to give James access to the props from the show that were confiscated as evidence, but to indulge his own acting bug by taking a role in the picture. Another involves Spencer’s uploading of old “Brigsby” episodes on YouTube, where they naturally develop a cult following. And there’s a turn for the worse when James’ use of explosives during filming leads to his arrest and commitment to a mental hospital at the recommendation of his therapist (Claire Danes).
James escapes, however, and finds his parents—who, after initial resistance to his making the movie, have come to accept it as a good idea—now willing to help him finish it. He needs one last element, though—the proper voice for Brigsby, which Ted had always provided. And even after that problem is resolved, James is faced with the possibility that when others see the finished product, they might laugh it off the screen.
The curious thing about “Brigsby Bear” is that while the premise might seem designed as the basis for a snarky satire, it turns out that the makers have used it to confect a strangely sappy, feel-good piece about acceptance and family instead, and the picture stumbles on its hipster whimsicality. It has its good points—Kinnear, for instance, is quite amusing as a fellow who really, really wants to act, anywhere in anything, and Lendeborg brings a nicely laid-back attitude to his scenes. Overall, though, the movie, slackly directed by Mooney’s longtime collaborator Dave McCary, comes off as an old little exercise in pop psychology, and Mooney himself as an acquired taste.
The production is pretty tacky—whether by intent or from financial necessity—with the “Brigsby Bear” sequences possessing a deliberately absurd, homemade quality. It takes a suspension of disbelief to accept—as the movie posits—that they could ever appeal to anyone but the single person for whom they were made, but in an age that embraces the movies shown on “Mystery Science Theatre” and the stuff people post on internet sites, anything is possible.
What’s less likely is that “Brigsby Bear” will find an audience beyond those already addicted to Mooney’s peculiar persona. But then who would have thought that “Napoleon Dynamite” would become such a smash?