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Brigsby Bear

You’ll want to buckle up for this one, folks. I barely even know where to begin, there’s so much bizarre ground to cover.

To wit: Brigsby Bear comes to us from director Dave McCary and co-writer/star Kyle Mooney, both of a sketch comedy troupe called Good Neighbor. On the list of producers, we’ve got Andy Samberg (who appears in a prominent cameo role), Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone; better known as Lonely Island. Also producers? Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Yeah. What the hell is this?

Well, Brigsby Bear is the story of James (Mooney), who grew up confined to an underground bunker in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. All he’s ever known are his house, his parents (played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), and Brigsby Bear. The latter, by the way, is a retro science-fantasy kid’s show — think old-school “Doctor Who” by way of Teddy Ruxpin. James is positively obsessed with the show, watching and researching all 700-plus episodes on a mountain of VHS tapes. He spends every possible second online talking about his pet theories and headcanon for the only show he’s ever known about.

Got the picture? Good. Every last word of it was fake.

This isn’t a post-apocalyptic wasteland — it’s present-day Utah. James’ parents aren’t his parents — they’re a couple of mad scientists who kidnapped James when he was a baby and they’ve been posing as his parents ever since. And Brigsby Bear? Every last episode was made by James’ captors in a warehouse somewhere to keep him nice and brainwashed. His online friends? James’ captors again, on a closed computer network. Basically put, this poor guy has been completely cut off from the outside world for his entire life and literally everything he’s ever known was a lie.

So James is finally rescued and taken to his birth family. He now has two real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) and a younger sister (Ryan Simpkins, whose little brother just happens to be named Ty) who have no idea what to do with him. And James is a fully grown adult thrust into a world he doesn’t know what to do with.

So James falls back on the only thing he knows: Brigsby Bear. Nobody else knows about Brigsby, of course, but James’ knowledge of the lore is so vast and his passion is so infectious that everyone loves talking about it with him. Then James learns about filmmaking, and his new mission is to make a movie and share Brigsby with the world. After all, if some amateur could churn out 20+ years of material with no budget or filmmaking experience, how hard could it be? Especially when James can appropriate everything that was already built for the show itself?

I want to get it out of the way early that this movie has A LOT to say about the creation and consumption of pop culture. Because James has been so disconnected with the rest of the world, his only means of connecting with anyone else is through this show. Making this movie is how he bonds with people, why he learns new skills, and why he gets out of the house. The show is how he learned important life lessons, and it gave his life meaning when he had literally nothing else. This is seriously a case of geekdom writ large: Most stereotypical geeks act as if one given thing is their entire world, fiercely defending something that could never mean anything to anyone else like it does to them; and in this case, that is literally, exactly true.

But the fact remains that James is obsessively holding onto something made by his captors for the sole purpose of brainwashing him. And therein lies the problem.

For comparison’s sake, consider Jack, the main character of Room. (You know, the film Brie Larson won an Oscar for.)

  • Jack only spent the first five years of his life in captivity, not the first twenty-five.
  • Jack was not abducted as a child, but had his birth mother at his side from start to finish.
  • Jack had some slight measure of honest and factual knowledge about the outside world, provided by his mother and what real books and television he had access to.

Yet Room unpacked the traumas of its main character over a 120-minute drama. By comparison, Brigsby Bear has a character with even more¬†psychological traumas to unpack in the span of 100 minutes, and it’s supposed to be a comedy.

THAT… IS FREAKING… INSANE.

This is exactly the kind of genius premise that could only have worked under an actual genius. And these filmmakers are pathetically unequal to the task. Yes, the film works perfectly well as a tribute to pop culture, with some endearingly geeky moments, poignant tributes to the creative process, and even a few genuine laughs. (“This is like the worst thing ever. I kind of love it.”) But we also have ginormous plot holes that get hand-waved away and crucial developments that happen offscreen, all so the film can fit within 100 minutes. Far more importantly, when the film really gets into how James is horribly disconnected from the rest of the world because he’s the victim of an unspeakably evil crime, this movie doesn’t even show a sliver of the necessary pathos.

Case in point: James is brought along to a party (his very first!) in an attempt to make him more social. It ends up with him getting wasted and seduced into making out (sloppily) with a much younger woman who happens to be a friend of his little sister. What the hell am I supposed to do with this? It’s not funny and it’s not heartbreaking, it’s just sad and disgusting.

There is a thin line between comedy and drama, and these filmmakers are so far removed from that line, they’d need a GPS and a helicopter to find their way back. This takes an especially huge toll on the performances — when it comes to dealing with the psychological ramifications of James and his predicament, every single actor is left floundering. It’s embarrassing to see such seasoned veterans as Greg Kinnear and Claire Danes struggling for direction, without any idea of how seriously to take this material. But of course the real proof is in Kyle Mooney’s performance — he clearly doesn’t have the first clue of how to strike the right balance, and this whole fucking thing was his idea!

That said, Andy Samberg gets a few laughs and Mark Hamill puts in the only performance that’s legitimately good. Both of them put together have about ten minutes of screen time, if that.

Brigsby Bear is a movie far too clever for its own good. Of course I appreciate a film that offers such a creative commentary about creativity, and there’s some very heartfelt stuff about pop culture in here. Some movies can get away on heart alone, but not this one. The basic premise of child abduction is supremely fucked up, demanding more pathos and deeper examination than the filmmakers were equipped to provide (certainly not in the span of 100 minutes), and treating it as a comedy seems outrageously insensitive.

Of course I respect the filmmakers for their ambition in creating something so bold and original, but they were in over their heads. The notion of a comedy about someone who grew up in captivity, subject to all sorts of psychological abuse without even knowing it, is extremely high-risk/high-reward, and these filmmakers fail terribly at doing the concept any kind of justice. As much as I respect this movie, there’s no way I can sign off on it.

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