As promotion for Brigsby Bear started to pop up, what struck me about it, in addition to its star-studded cast and crew, was just how different it was. In an age where so many movies lay it all out for us months and sometimes years before they hit theaters, it was refreshing and intriguing to see a movie that no one could really get a read on. Clearly, the film was writer and star Kyle Mooney’s passion project, but what was it exactly? A sci-fi mind bender? A family drama? A flat-out comedy fitting its producers (the Lonely Island and Lord/Miller)? Either way, it quickly set itself apart as a must-see for me, and now that I’ve seen it, I can tell you it’s everything I hoped for and nothing like I expected.
I don’t want to go too in-depth about everything that goes on in the movie, because I think everyone should see it with fresh eyes. What I will tell you is that it’s not particularly funny. It has plenty of funny moments, sure, and it takes place in a world that’s rife with comedic potential, but it’s actually very grounded and emotional. If you’re expecting a gut-busting romp (which you probably shouldn’t be if you’ve seen the trailers), you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for a weird, beautiful, thoughtful movie, you’ve come to the right place.
The gist of the film, in the least spoilery way I can explain it, is that it follows Kyle Mooney’s character, James. He’s a young adult who was kidnapped as a baby and raised in a cultish environment by faux parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who had him convinced that an apocalyptic event had rendered the outside world unlivable. Growing up, his only interest was Brigsby Bear Adventures, a propaganda series made exclusively by Hamill’s character for James. Obviously, once James is rescued and taken to his real family, he struggles to process his new reality, but becomes closer to reality and his new family as he produces a feature film adaptation of Brigsby Bear.
All told, the movie is a celebration of creativity and fandom, as well as a thought-provoking commentary on how media shapes our understanding of self and the world around us. As the movie goes on, we start to see James as a conduit for Brigsby, and vice versa. He can’t become a complete individual until Brigsby’s story is complete, so he spends the movie running around putting the different pieces of Brigsby together, like an emotional treasure hunt. And in a very literal sense, each part of Brigsby brings out more humanity in James. A lost eyepiece brings him closer to his sister, tracking down an actress from the show helps him discover love and attraction, and recording the characters’ voices allows him to achieve closure with his kidnappers. The idea of a “spiritual quest” is as hackneyed and meaningless as they come, but the phrase describes this movie to a T.
And technically speaking, everything about the movie works. The sci-fi influenced score is captivating, as are most of the performances. Mooney’s work isn’t too much of a departure from what we’ve seen him do on SNL, but it fits his character perfectly. Mark Hamill is amazing as always. In terms of cast, this movie’s only crime is that it underuses some of its strongest names. Claire Danes is pinned as the perpetrator of James’ kidnapping, but her character is never explored. Beck Bennett gets about five minutes played completely straight. Andy Samberg’s character certainly feels necessary for the movie’s progression, but feels more like Samberg stepping out of the producer’s chair to push the plot forward than an actual character in the same world as everyone else.
Speaking of which, the movie’s world is on a bit of a peculiar wavelength. Like I said, there’s Lonely Island and Good Neighbor-esque comedy to the world, and the characters would easily fit in in a straightforward comedy, but everything’s played completely straight. You sort of need to be a fan of Mooney’s previous work, or at least in tune with it, in order to appreciate Brigsby Bear. If that describes you, make this movie a priority.
Brigsby Bear is a film that surprised and touched me, though it feels like a movie that’ll require some more deep thought before I can truly offer my opinion. It’s not the kind of movie I’d appreciate from most people, but Mooney, the Lonely Island, and Lord/Miller’s unique sensibilities and worldview make it stand out as one of the most mature, thoughtful movies of the year. For that, I give it a 96/100.