In ‘Brigsby Bear,’ childlike wonder never grows old
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.
This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Matt Walsh, from left, Kyle Mooney and Michaela Watkins in a scene from “Brigsby Bear.”