Movie Review: “Brigsby Bear”

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Kudos to Kyle Mooney, who used his “Saturday Night Live” fame to make a movie that’s nothing like your typical “Saturday Night Live” movie.

“Brigsby Bear” may be slight and gimmicky, but it’s nothing like the goofball character contraptions that Lorne Michaels has long produced for his revolving door of comic sketch artists. Mooney called in favors, brings on board SNL castmates and other big names. And they made a movie about an adult, raised in isolation with only his parents, math, animatronic animals and this cheesy ’80s-style children’s TV show for company.

An underground desert home was all James (Mooney) ever knew. The locks kept out the world, the geodesic domed observatory didn’t let in “the poison air.” So James just obsessed about the show — a sci-fi fantasy with actors in bear and duck costumes, cheap effects and unsubtle life lessons (don’t litter) shoved in, produced a video blog with plot summaries, and occasionally tackled an unsolvable math equation.

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But all this was because those “parents” (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams) kidnapped him as a baby and raised him that way. The day the cops come and free him, James is sent back to his birth family and faces a world that is utterly alien to him, a world that has never heard of this fake TV show, “Brigsby Bear.”

“It’s a different reality,” he tells a reporter. “Everything’s very big!”

The novelty of a 30ish guy experiencing his first Coca-Cola, his first movie, his first party (with much younger sister Aubrey–Ryan Simpkins), his first beer, bong-hit and sexual encounter, isn’t that novel or hilarious.

“Thank you for what you’re doing! It feels very good!”

Still, the character and the film’s naive charm carries it along. Greg Kinnear plays the detective and one-time actor who befriends James and tries to help with the adjustment. Claire Danes shows up as a shrink, with Matt Pope and Michaela Watkins playing the indulgent but traumatized parents who take this stranger back in.

They all want James to acclimate, adjust and move into this new life. But all he can talk about is that damned bear and his TV show. His obsession comes off as kitschy, and that’s why Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) is drawn to him. He’s a high school classmate of Aubrey, and he convinces James to make Youtube videos about the bear, and to make a movie to “finish” his adventure.

No, there’s not a lot of novelty to DIY moviemaking movies either — see “Be Kind, Rewind” or “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” If you want true originality in this arrested development vein, check out “Dave Made a Maze.” Now THAT’s out there.

Mooney’s scruffy, weathered looks serve the character well, and the odd fish-out-of-water line adds goodwill to a picture that skates by on that far too often.

“My parents stole me when I was a baby, but I still think they’re pretty cool.”

The third act has moments of tenderness and warmth that belie the featherweight film they’re tucked into. And any movie that lets Hamill show off his malleable voice-over skills, and play a human being, is to be treasured.

It’s not as odd as it’s advertising suggests, and it’s a comedy where the laughs aren’t big, with unironic irony delivering more grins than chuckles. The overkill casting doesn’t add much, either. It just shows that Mooney (as co-writer and producer) has a solid contacts list.

But as slight as it is, “Brigsby Bear” still adds up to “pleasantly diverting,” which is more than too many of its SNL alumni comedy predecessors can manage.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying

Cast: Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Jane Adams, Ryan Simpkins

Credits:Directed by Dave McCrary, script by Kevin Costello, Kyle Mooney. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:35

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