So here’s the premise: An adult male — seemingly in his late twenties — watches VHS tapes of one show, and one show only. It is called “Brigsby Bear,” and it features a large costumed character that embarks on strange adventures involving his nemesis, the Sun Snatcher.
The adult male is named James, and as we soon discover, he has spent his entire life in an underground complex with his parents. Well, he thinks they are his parents.
In actuality, they are his kidnappers. And after the police finally track James down, his life will change forever. What will not change is his love for Brigsby. Oh, Brigsby was created and filmed by the kidnapper/father for an audience of one: James.
This premise involves some heavy lifting, but it works, wonderfully. And that makes “Brigsby Bear” the type of offbeat, unexpected delight that will almost instantly spawn a devoted cult audience.
It’s the first film starring Kyle Mooney of “Saturday Night Live" (he also co-wrote), and the feature directorial debut of “SNL” director Dave McCary. The duo’s novice status shows, and that’s a good thing. There is a freshness and verve to “Brigsby Bear” that likely comes only from young filmmakers with nothing to lose.
Mooney’s James is a unique creation. He’s a socially dysfunctional misfit raised to believe the outside world’s air is toxic and that television starts and ends with an educational bear. A character and a premise such as this teeters on the edge of obnoxiousness, but Mooney ensures that James, and “Brigsby,” never fall off.
The early scenes are especially involving. James is at home with his “dad” (a very impressive and very funny Mark Hamill) and “mom” (Jane Adams, Showtime’s “Twin Peaks”), and living a life consisting of “Brigsby” viewings, some studies and plenty of late-night alone time.
Once the police find James and arrest his kidnappers, he is brought into contact with a warm, caring police officer (Greg Kinnear) and the parents who never stopped searching for him. There are some jarring tonal shifts here, but things calm down a bit as James adjusts to his new life.
In terms of laughs, “Brigsby Bear” truly takes off after James’s younger sister brings him to a party. He gets as wasted as one would expect, but he also makes new friends, especially fledgling filmmaker Spencer (the wonderful Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). He helps make James’s idea — to make a "Brigsby" movie — a reality.
As the film nears its conclusion, there are a few clear missteps, including a lengthy (and unnecessary) diversion at a mental health facility. However, the final ten minutes or so are a treat, and a sign that unlike a film such as “Napoleon Dynamite,” the filmmakers are not mocking their protagonist. They are embracing him, and so will the audience.
If this all sounds a tad implausible, it is. But it’s all handled with heart and warmth. James’s goal becomes the audience’s goal, and watching him try, stumble, and try again is downright moving.
Much credit goes to the cast, specifically Mooney, Kinnear, Hamill, Lendeborg, Jr., and Kate Lyn Sheil (as a girl who once appeared in the "Brigsby" videos made by Hamill’s kidnapper). Thanks to these performers and director McCary, “Brigsby Bear” qualifies as a small-scale summer success. When the credits roll, it’s nearly impossible not to be smiling.
3 stars (out of four)
Brigsby Bear. Starring Kyle Mooney, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear and Andy Samberg. An adult male, who spent his life underground watching one TV with people he thought were his parents, learns he was kidnapped. 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying.)