Kyle Mooney is decidedly one of the breakout stars from the most recent seasons of Saturday Night Live, so it was only a matter of time before he would write a feature for himself to star in.
In Brigsby Bear, Mooney plays James, the biggest fan of a show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” a low-budget outer space adventure in the vein of Thunderbirds. He lives underground with his parents Ted and April (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams), communicating with other fans of the show via a primitive internet browser—but he is unable to go outside due to there being supposedly “toxic air.” When the police arrive, we discover that James was actually kidnapped as a baby many years ago and has since basically been kept imprisoned by the two people claiming to be his parents.
After being reunited with his real parents, James tries to adjust to the modern world, which proves difficult. Yet he’s still obsessed with “Brigsby Bear,” to the point where he wants to make his own movie to finish his earlier adventures. He pulls in his new sister (Ryan Simpkins) and a few of her friends. Even Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear), the officer who cracked the case, reluctantly agrees to help them get the “Brigsby Bear” props out of police lock-up.
Directed by Dave McCary, another SNL alum, Brigsby Bear is the type of smaller indie comedy that plays great at film festivals (like Sundance where it premiered) but may have a hard time connecting with mainstream audiences, as well as older adults. In many ways, it can be said that the movie is very much in line with the short experimental films Mooney makes for Saturday Night Live, which some people clearly like more than others.
The general premise isn’t bad, and it’s fun to watch the low-budget productions that James’ “parents” put together to keep him entertained, as well as to educate him as he’s growing up. Besides the fact they kidnapped him, are they such bad parents for trying to help him learn stuff with entertaining fantasy storylines? These shows are done in a way that reminds you of DIY productions in movies like Be Kind Rewind, Son of Rambow, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, where people are trying to get the most production value out of very little money. The fact that all three of those movies also premiered at Sundance is somewhat telling.
The charm of such productions grow as James tries to make his own movie after being released, but if you’ve seen those aforementioned (and far superior) movies, then you realize what made them so wonderful was that there was more to the stories being told than just the basic “let’s make a movie” aspect of Brigsby Bear. They also had far more talented actors in front of the camera.
Mooney himself doesn’t have a lot of range, so James is the type of frustrating man-child we’ve seen far too many times in comedies, but he also isn’t able to sell his innocence as well as others have in similar roles. There is certainly a soft spot one might have for the amount of heart Mooney brings to the movie, especially in its last act, but it’s hard to suddenly care about a character who has previously been so annoying.
The rest of the cast around Mooney isn’t much better other than maybe Hamill and Adams, who are removed from the equation as soon as it’s revealed James isn’t their actual son. Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins also don’t offer much as the Popes, James’ real parents, which may be why they’re phased out fairly quickly, as he starts making his movie.
There’s also the particularly creepy romance between James and one of his sister’s horny friends here, which never really goes too far, thankfully. Still, the fact the movie even goes there is bothersome. On the other hand, it’s nice when James finally finds Brigsby’s beloved sidekick Arielle Smiles, who James grew up watching on the show with a far more innocent rush. She’s now working as a waitress, played by the equally crush-worthy Kate Lyn Sheil. Although she only has couple scenes, she’s so much better than the rest of the cast of characters that it’s a shame she’s so underused.
For whatever reason, Brigsby Bear feels like a failed opportunity, only because it starts off with what could have been an interesting premise but doesn’t offer enough to warrant that idea being turned into a feature-length film. It seems content at being just another Saturday Night Live short.
Brigsby Bear will be released in select cities on July 28.