There are sounds that many (though definitely not all) people in my generation aren’t only familiar with, but that bring back a sudden and intoxicating rush of nostalgia. People of a certain age who are also movie/tv show junkies – like myself – get wistful when they hear them. They are the sounds of a VHS tape being pushed into a VCR; the little clicks and electronic hums as the machine seats and prepares the tape for play; that odd wavery quality of the picture and sound when the tracking goes wonky.
The movie Brigsby Bear, and the makers behind it, tap into that nostalgia in an incredibly potent way. This is a movie that feels like it was made for me. Dave McCary, the director, and Kyle Mooney, the star and co-writer, are both five years younger than I am. They were probably just as obsessed as I was with taping things on cable, watching copious amounts of movies on VHS, and using two VCRs to edit together homemade movies.
You’ll have to forgive me if I fawn over Brigsby Bear too much. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there – people my own age, even – who would read the preceding paragraphs and unconsciously quote Josh Baskin from Big when he’s confronted with a toy building that turns into a robot: “I don’t get it.” For anyone who doesn’t get it, there is plenty more going for the movie than simple nostalgia.
The movie tells the story of James Pope, a 25-year-old man-child who lives in an underground bunker with his parents, Ted and April. The only connection James has with the outside world is the children’s educational show called Brigsby Bear. He mysteriously receives a tape each week with a new episode of the show that follows the adventures of Brigsby, a human-sized Teddy Ruxpin-like animatronic bear, and his friends, the Smiles twins, Arielle and Nina. James’ life is turned upside down after a police raid results in Ted and April being arrested for kidnapping James when he was an infant. He is returned to his real parents, Greg and Louise, but the hardest thing for him to deal with is that there won’t be any more episodes of his favorite show. It was made for an audience of one: him.
The most charming thing about the film is Kyle Mooney’s performance as James. He maintains a careful guilelessness that never feels forced or becomes obnoxious. As James navigates a world that is impossibly bigger than he could have ever imagined, we see his social awkwardness and we empathize. Those of us who harbor more than a little social awkwardness ourselves do more than just empathize.
The film also explores a trait in James that some of us *ahem* might also know something about: obsession. Specifically, most of Brigsby Bear is about the creative impulse and being so obsessed by it that you are blinded to almost everything else. James refuses to let something he treasures die, so he decides to finish the story on his own by making a Brigsby Bear movie.
Again, I practically could have requested this movie be made just for me. McCary and Mooney team up to capture the bliss of getting a shot just right and putting your imagination onto film. I have a rather limited imagination (one of the two reasons I realized by the end of film school that production probably wasn’t right for me), but I know the feeling the picture encapsulates, if only through the few student films I made in college.
Aside from all that, Brigsby Bear is a delightful comedy. There isn’t an ounce of cynicism in the whole movie, and that’s particularly refreshing. The supporting cast that backs up Mooney are having as much fun as he is. Particularly effective is Greg Kinnear as Detective Vogel, the officer in charge of the raid that brought Ted and April to justice. He tries to help James integrate into society. When James tells him about his plan to make a movie, Vogel becomes enthusiastic, and talks about the joys of stage acting that he experienced in high school. That’s all James needs to hear. Because of his boundless enthusiasm for the project, he easily talks Vogel into playing a wizard in his movie. The scenes in which Kinnear’s Vogel digs back to his Shakespearean school days to deliver a passionate amateur performance are priceless.
Mark Hamill steals the show in the very few scenes in which he appears. He plays Ted, one of the people responsible for James’ abduction. Hamill is known, aside, obviously, from playing Luke Skywalker, for his cartoon voice work, most notably as The Joker in an animated version of Batman. The filmmakers use this talent to great effect. In addition to Ted, he also plays the voice of Brigsby and the giant, evil floating head that threatens the bear in every episode of the show. The floating head also appears as a vision to James when he takes drugs at a teenage party.
The party scene allowed me to connect with the movie, and James, more than I already had. James is nervous and has no idea how to behave at a party; he’s never been to one, after all. He’s only there because his parents insist that James’ sister, Aubrey, take him with her when she lies and tells them she is going to a football game with some friends. It’s one uncomfortable exchange after another, until he starts talking about his true passion: Brigsby. The way Mooney transforms his face from sullen to excited as the party goers get caught up in his reveries brought a smile to my face.
Brigsby Bear is quiet, charming, funny, and excitingly original. This is not a movie that will become a box-office smash hit. It’s my deepest hope, however, that it will find an appreciative, cult audience and live on long after its theatrical run, despite the fact that it will never be enjoyed on videotape.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Brigsby Bear is one of the warmest movies I've seen in years. It just made me happy.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I felt bad spoiling the reveal of why James and his "parents" live in an underground bunker. I knew almost nothing about the movie going into the screening, and that was a unique way to watch it. James gets rescued within the first ten minutes of the movie, though, and the trailer gives this plot point away. It also would have been really hard to write about Brigsby Bear without giving it away. Plus, the enjoyment of the movie doesn't depend on you not knowing that one thing. Still, I feel like I had a special experience seeing the movie without knowing.
- Claire Danes appears as James' therapist. I love Danes, she's a great actress, but she's completely wasted in Brigsby Bear. She is given almost nothing to do.
- Speaking of cameos, both Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney have Saturday Night Live ties (McCary is a segment director, and Mooney is currently a cast member) so Andy Samberg pops up in a tiny role. His The Lonely Island crew helped produce Brigsby Bear, too. It's got that off-kilter sensibility, but nowhere near as much as something like Kung Fury.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon got together with director Michael Winterbottom (with a last name like Winterbottom, do I even have to tell you he's British, too?) in 2010, and did a BBC show called The Trip. Coogan and Brydon played heightened versions of themselves as they traveled up to northern England to sample British restaurants so they could report their findings to The Observer. They turned the 6-episode series into a movie, then did the same thing in 2014, with The Trip to Italy. They're back again, this time with The Trip to Spain. I caught up on the first two last week (I was familar with them, but had never watched either one), and next week, I'll report on their adventures in Spain.