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Movie Review: “Brigsby Bear”

Official movie poster for “Brigsby Bear” / Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

By Carl Kozlowski *

For the past four seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” cast member Kyle Mooney has created a series of unique video shorts that have thrown comic curveballs at viewers with a decidedly twisted point of view. In his new film “Brigsby Bear,” Mooney takes on fanboy obsession with pop culture, creating a very odd and surprisingly touching look at a guy who is so hooked on a TV show that it becomes the center of his existence – only to learn that he is the only person who has ever seen it.

Mooney plays James Pope, a 25-year-old man-child who spends his days obsessively watching and analyzing VHS tapes of a show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” a cross between old Saturday-morning kids’ sci-fi shows such as “Land of the Lost” and “Barney and Friends.” The show follows an animatronic talking bear named Brigsby, who saves the universe from an evil villain called the Sun Snatcher each week while teaching seemingly sweet but bizarre life lessons.

James still lives with his parents in what appears to be their basement but is soon revealed to be part of an underground bunker in the Utah desert. His only view of the outside world comes when he climbs out into a geodesic dome at night with his father, Ted (Mark Hamill), or sits on the roof of the bunker wearing a gas mask because he has been taught that the atmosphere is toxic.

But one night, a team of police cars race towards his home and take James away, as a cop named Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) reveals that Ted and his wife were not his parents after all. They kidnapped him as a baby and had hidden him from everything in the real world, with Ted creating the “Brigsby” series – and the themed toys, posters and bedsheets that fill James’ room – solely for James’ amusement.

As James is returned to his real parents, Greg (Matt Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins), and teenage sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), he finds it impossible to adjust to a world in which no one knows a thing about “Brigsby,” and he knows nothing about real life. Since “Brigsby” ended each episode with a cliffhanger, he is determined to reach closure by creating his own movie version of a grand finale, using the props that Vogel sneaks him from the police evidence room after Ted is charged with kidnapping.

“Brigsby Bear” is one of the strangest films to hit the big screen in ages, but Mooney (who co-wrote the screenplay with Kevin Costello) isn’t out to mock fanboys here. Rather, the film is alternately a valentine to the creative spirit and an intriguing exploration of what can happen if people allow their love of pop culture replace the need for the basics of human connection and living a normal life.

James’ life is so far removed from regular existence that at first it seems impossible to relate to him. But as he navigates adjusting to his real family and making friends for the first time, Mooney provides him with a sweet spirit and heart that become winning.

There are logic problems with the screenplay, requiring a huge suspension of disbelief to imagine how Ted pulled off his ruse. Yet director Dave McCary works wonders with the film’s tone, creating a deliberate and thoughtful pace that makes the film equally dramatic and comedic. He effectively immerses viewers into the film’s rural Utah setting, where people might easily create fantasies to escape their bland reality.

McCary draws strong performances from the cast, with Walsh particularly moving as a dad trying to make up for all the things he missed out on sharing with his son as a child. Kinnear adds a warmhearted depth as Vogel, who realizes that helping James pursue his dream is the only way he can attain happiness. It’s also fun to see Hamill play a role that subverts his own reality as the focus of obsessed “Star Wars” fans.

Overall, “Brigsby” has a sweet spirit that is mostly inoffensive, with minimal foul language, though the main immoral content comes from a party scene that James’ sister takes him to with her high school peers. James gets drunk and takes Ecstasy for the first time, unaware of the consequences from the alcohol and pill that he accepts naively, while one girl at the party tries to seduce him before he runs away.

Yet James’ innocent spirit wins over those around him throughout, and “Brigsby” has a very positive view of the power of family bonds and creativity.

The film has arrived with perfect timing, coming shortly after the end of Comic-Con, the convention that draws more than 130,000 people together each year in celebration of comics and pop culture. Seeing the elaborate costumes many of the attendees dress in while portraying their favorite characters, it is easy to wonder how many are just having some fun, and how many are close to being a real-life version of James.

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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