Director: Dave McCary
Cast: Kyle Mooney, Greg Kinnear, Ryan Simpkins, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Alexa Demie, Jane Adams, Kate Lyn Sheil, Beck Bennett, Andy Samberg
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 7/28/17 (limited); 8/4/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 3, 2017
Here's a movie that wants us to feel good about the fact that a man, who has spent most of his life held captive by a couple who have brainwashed him, embraces the terms of his captors. There's a lot to the premise of Brigsby Bear about the influence of popular culture, the nature of devoted fandom, and the effects of abuse—how it lingers and can convince a person that such activity is just part normal life. It's that last part that leaves a discomforting impression on an otherwise clever and amusing movie.
The screenplay by Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello seems to understand that there's something very wrong with its protagonist, as well as that there's something unhealthy about the way that he deals with the aftereffects of decades of psychological abuse. The movie understands these things, but it also wants to celebrate the weirdness within its setup. Since James (Mooney), who was kidnapped as a child and forced to live in an isolated bomb shelter for most of his life, is obviously "weird" after his experience, that means the movie has to celebrate everything that comes with the character, too. That even means the notions that he won't really move on from his past and that he won't even accept help to do so.
That turns the story into an unfortunately perfect fable for a world in which people self-diagnose and self-medicate at will. James doesn't have an actual drug, but his figurative one is a TV show for kids about the adventures of a talking bear named Brigsby Bear. The show doesn't exist in the real world, because it was created by the couple (played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who kidnapped James. They feed it to him daily, and James has spent the majority of his life dissecting the mythology of the show, coming up with multiple theories about its mystical components.
James learns all of this pretty quickly after he's rescued from captivity, returned to his parents (played by Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) and sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), and forced to readjust to a world he hasn't known since he was a child. There's a psychiatrist (played by Claire Danes) to help him, but she's essentially useless.
The movie turns James into a joke—a socially awkward man who hasn't matured and has no idea how to interact with people who have never heard of Brigsby Bear (He'll tell them all about it, whether or not they want to know). On a satirical level, this works, and the movie remains fairly satirical for a while. It's a biting send-up of pop-culture obsession and the dangers of becoming trapped in that obsession.
After their parents suggest that Aubrey help James acclimate to society, he ends up spending some time with her friends, including Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who has some experience with computer animation. Spencer is immediately drawn to the Brigsby Bear folklore and puts some episodes online.
Once those episodes go viral, James decides to put together a movie about the continuing adventures of the bear, his friends, and his enemy, the Sun Snatcher. He gets help from Spencer, Audrey, and the rest of her friends, who find James endearing enough to ignore his obvious problems. There's also a police detective (played by Greg Kinnear) who enables James' addiction by bringing him props from the fake show. The cop really wants to be an actor, and since James is willing to give him a part in the movie, what's the problem with ignoring protocol?
The ultimate problem is twofold: As much as they poke at it, Mooney and Costello don't really see a problem with this kind of fandom, and the movie really wants us to feel good about how James uses his creativity to triumph over his adversity. Both of these instincts ring false.
We can see the problem, because the movie has established it with such an absurd extreme. The point is that James remains a captive, despite his freedom, and even as the figurative walls of his prison crumble, he still maintains his devotion without much change. He seeks an actress (played by Kate Lyn Sheil) who was part of the Brigsby Bear ensemble and on whom James has had an essentially life-long crush. Even that encounter isn't quite enough to end the fixation.
Meeting with one of his kidnappers in prison doesn't help much, either. All of it suggests that James needs more help than he's currently getting, but the movie doesn't want to address that directly. It would rather that James remain loyal to Brigsby Bear, no matter what that loyalty may suggest about his progress—or the lack thereof.
As for the creative element of James' self-directed non-therapy therapy, it's portrayed as both a comic lark (with James trying to create a special effects-driven adventure without any budget) and a legitimate coping mechanism. At a certain point, Brigsby Bear becomes about coping, and it tries to turn something absurd and satirical into something with a sincere message about overcoming trauma. It doesn't work. In the end, this is a movie that reaches for something profound and helpful. It can only grasp the strange, though, while making a simplistic moral out of pain that it understands but doesn't want to confront in a meaningful way.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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