In ‘Brigsby Bear,’ child­like won­der never grows old

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY JOSEPH LONGO

Co­me­dian Kyle Mooney ex­cels at play­ing sheep­ish, odd­ball man chil­dren on “Satur­day Night Live.’’

They’re not ob­nox­ious, in­ap­pro­pri­ate bros which made his buddy Andy Sam­berg fa­mous. Rather, Mooney em­bod­ies sen­si­tiv­ity, adding em­pa­thy to men in­stinc­tively pa­tron­ized as sad sacks.

Mooney suc­cess­fully re­turns to the well in “Brigsby Bear.’’ He stars as James, a shel­tered young adult liv­ing with his overly pro­tec­tive parents Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams). James hasn’t grown up, still read­ing by flash­light or sneak­ing out of his room af­ter his bed­time. How­ever af­ter a trau­matic night, James quickly learns Ted and April kid­napped him as a child. He re­mem­bers noth­ing and doesn’t par­tic­u­larly care his faux-parents ab­ducted him.

All that mat­ters for James is the fic­tional chil­dren’s pro­gram Brigsby Bear.

The setup works. Mooney and co-writer Kevin Costello poke fun at cheesy chil­dren’s pro­grams like “Barney & Friends’’ or “Tele­tub­bies’’ that drill moral lessons into sim­plis­tic ev­ery­day co­nun­drums.

“Brigsby Bear’’ the movie is cer­tainly no ev­ery­day co­nun­drum. First time screen­writ­ers Costello and Mooney of­fer a new per­spec­tive on the cap­tiv­ity film. Namely, they take what could be a three-minute “SNL’’ par­ody, re­move the con­de­scend­ing tone and add sym­pa­thy. James never knew he’d been kid­napped as a baby, so of course he has lit­tle rea­son to de­spise his cap­tors. They raised him as a healthy, loved child. It’s the sen­sa­tional, ag­gres­sive Amer­i­can cul­ture that scares him.

Both di­rec­tor Dave McCary and Mooney are mem­bers of the sketch com­edy group Good Neigh­bor and work at “SNL.’’

‘’Brigsby Bear” is McCary’s first fea­ture-length di­rec­to­rial de­but and he takes smart risks. McCary in­ter­weaves stop-an­i­ma­tion draw­ings into the live­ac­tion film which adds to the theme of le­git­i­macy in child­hood in­ter­ests. While min­i­mal, it works.

It’s the other Good Neigh­bor in­volve­ments that don’t. Co­me­dian Nick Ruther­ford is lit­tle more than just a plot point as Ex­cited Man, an overzeal­ous fan. The fourth and fi­nal mem­ber Beck Ben­nett plays Deputy Ban­der, a cop in­ves­ti­gat­ing James’ ab­duc­tion. Ben­nett is hav­ing a ca­reer high play­ing the shirt­less Vladimir Putin on “SNL,’’ but none of his comedic chops are dis­played in the film. He serves only as a con­trast to his part­ner, the love­able De­tec­tive Vogel (Greg Kin­n­ear) who bonds with James. The cast­ings feel more like Mooney pleas­ing his friends with film roles rather than mar­ry­ing dy­namic ac­tors to de­vel­oped char­ac­ters.

For­tu­nately, the rest of the cast ex­cels. Fans com­ing for the co­me­di­ans will likely rec­og­nize Hamill as the guy from “Star Wars.’’ A heart­break­ing scene be­tween the newly jailed Ted and James ce­ments Hamill as a le­gendary ac­tor out­side of an iconic fran­chise which of­ten fails to in­dulge his emo­tional range.

Ted is not a vi­cious kid­nap­per; he’s a man who just wanted to be a fa­ther and il­lic­itly suc­ceeded. It’s the same de­sire of James’ birth parents played by Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh who tran­scend at wran­gling their trauma along­side James’ ap­a­thy. Watkins proves once again a short ten­ure on “SNL’’ isn’t ca­reer de­struc­tion.

The film of­fers no true sur­prises, fol­low­ing many kid­nap­ping cliches. And yet it’s highly-aware by in­ten­tion­ally find­ing hu­mour and hap­pi­ness in a dark tale. “Brigsby Bear’’ of­fers a glimpse on what makes Mooney and his man-child per­sona work. There’s strength in em­brac­ing awk­ward, child­like won­der.

“Brigsby Bear,’’ a Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics re­lease, is rated PG-13 by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica for “the­matic el­e­ments, brief sex­u­al­ity, drug ma­te­rial and teen par­ty­ing.’’ Run­ning time: 97 min­utes. Three stars out of four.

AP PHOTO

This im­age re­leased by Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics shows Matt Walsh, from left, Kyle Mooney and Michaela Watkins in a scene from “Brigsby Bear.”

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