Before a single frame of Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear appears on the screen, the laughs are already happening. A fake opening title card reads that one of the studios was “Lonely Island Classics,” and it’s presented in the same font style and color as the logo for Sony Pictures Classics.
The film sets up the viewer for a, mostly, unpredictable ride to The Lonely Island’s world (the American comedy trio composed of Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone all appear briefly in the movie). It opens with an episode of the made-up children’s TV series Brigsby Bear, which is, quite simply put, about a Teddy Ruxin-like bear named Brigsby, who travels the galaxy, saves the world from destruction and also makes sure to teach a valuable life lesson to the, mostly, tykes watching the show (“trust only the familial unit.”) I use the word “mostly” because the film’s main character, 25 year-old James Pope (James Mooney), is obsessed with Brigsby, having seen every episode and memorized every line.
We learn that James’ passion for Brigsby isn’t the only thing keeping him in his room. He lives with his parents in a bunker set up in a deserted, unknown location. The viewer is led to believe that an apocalyptic event has happened and that if one were to leave the bunker they’d have to put on a gas mask. This is, however, not your ordinary family (one of the weirder rituals they embark on is the shaking of hands after the dinner prayer).
It isn’t too long before the FBI shows up, raiding the bunker, arresting the parents and telling James the harsh truth: He was abducted as a baby by his fake parents who have taught him a completely different way of learning. His parents go to jail and James is then forced to reintegrate with his birth family, and society in general, which proves to be a difficult task.
The biggest shock comes when he learns that Brigsby was a show with an audience of one. His dad (a sly, cunningly hilarious Mark Hamill) devised the whole thing by renting out a warehouse and hiring actors who were told it was a publicly funded Canadian television program. Upon discovering this, James decides to shoot the final few episodes himself to wrap things up for the show and provide some sense of closure.
Brigsby Bear then becomes a film about the healing process, of creating art as self-therapy. If he can’t seem to connect with his biological parents, James hits it off with his sister Aubrey and her friend Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) He meets the latter at a house party his sister brings him to. While there, he ends up taking ecstasy, obviously not knowing the repercussions, and hooks up, quite naively, with his sister’s more promiscuous friend. Of course, he also talks Brigsby, which piques the attention Spencer, a sci-fi animator with experience using film software.
Mooney, a cast member on Saturday Night Live, shows off his comedic chops effortlessly here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if much improv was used by him and The Lonely Island team throughout the film. He brings a sense of comedic naïveté to a character that’s been severely brainwashed all his life to think one way, but has to adjust to society’s completely different way of thinking. It’s like what would happen to the kids of Dogtooth post-escaping and results in a fascinating study of how powerful indoctrination is. Brigsby is James’ religion and he abides by its every rules.
The rest of the cast is strong as well. With the already mentioned Mooney, Lendeborg and Hamill, you also have Greg Kinnear as a former Shakespearean actor and now detective who rescues James at the film’s start, but ends up getting reacquainted with his inner actor. There’s also Kate Lyn Sheil, who appears in one scene as a diner waitress, but is also the main actress of the fake “Brigsby” show.
Although the film flies off the rails in its climax, the rest of Brigsby Bear is an outrageous concept that’s pulled off quite well. McCary, an SNL writer and director, shows great promise and satirical sting with his directing chops, managing to create something wholly unique and original here. You ain’t seen nothing like it, and probably never will again.
The Lonely Island guys strike it big again with another comedy, but this time with a darker tone.