Turns out there is such a thing as too much whimsy. Brigsby Bear, a showcase of sorts for the brilliant talent that is Kyle Mooney that could only exist in a post-Napoleon Dynamite universe, falls short of indie greatness by never fully exploring any one of its many interesting ideas. It’s a whole lot of creativity with little sense of direction and not a single clue who it is trying to entertain, if anyone. It’s never funny enough to hide justify its pitch black premise, nor does it embrace the darkness enough to create a genuine sense of empathy. It’s half-baked, albeit imaginatively so, and no doubt one of the more frustrating moviegoing experiences we’re likely to see in 2017.
Mooney stars as James Pope, a grown man whose life is turned upside down when he learns the people he believed to be his parents are actually criminals who kidnapped him shortly after his birth. Things get even weirder when James learns his beloved television show, a sci-fi based educational endeavor titled The Adventures of Brigsby Bear, was produced for him and him alone by the very people taking care of him. James struggles to process his new reality, so to make better sense of it all he sets out to complete the series by making the Brigsby Bear movie he always wanted to see.
All film fans know Hollywood has a love affair with itself, so it should come as no surprise that Brigsy Bear touches on all the signature beats of similar movies about movies in its own bizarre way. As James attempts to enter modern society he quickly finds an unlikely friend in Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), a smart young man with a passion for video. James shares his love of Brigsby Bear and Spencer learns to love it in return. Together the pair work to bring James’ vision to life, often with unexpected consequences.
There is moment fairly early on when James’ real father, played by Matt Walsh, confronts a police detective played by Greg Kinnear who is helping James bring Brigsby to life. He admits he appreciates the gesture, but hopes the detective understands the gravity of the situation. Brigsby was a tool used by criminals to indoctrinate a child to their way of life. He may bring James a sense of joy, but that is the result of constant conditioning spread across more than two decades. He argues that in order to grow and move on it might be best that James be forced to have some distance from the talking bear his fake dad once voiced, which is not incorrect. The other characters eventually consider such things briefly before tossing any sense of true seriousness aside in preference of celebrating the power of creativity.
Given James’ upbringing it’s easy to understand why he’s not the most forthcoming about his emotions, but Brigsby Bear never finds a way to supplement James’ lack of dialogue with dramatic expression. A lesson is eventually learned late in the third act, but it’s tucked into the thing James spends the film creating without once forcing him to really confront the reality of his situation. He seems to do some kind of healing through his work, but we never see it unfold. The film assumes we know James needs to make his film in order to heal. There is rarely, if ever a sequence where we see James take in the revelations of the film’s first act in a meaningful way, and by ignoring the numerous messed up things that have transpired the film never earns the reverence it gives the creative process.
There is no other movie in the world quite like Brigsby Bear. That fact alone may be enough to justify a watch for some, but those hoping its uniqueness speaks to its overall quality may want to approach this title with a bit more caution. While Mooney’s work is entertaining and the supporting cast of Hollywood notables never fails to do its part, Brigsby Bear never feels as even half as magical or charming as the fictional show it revolves around. Nothing goes as deep or as far as it should, opting instead to be weird for the sake of being weird. There are more missed opportunities than anyone can count, and because of this the movie may make some viewers increasingly mad as the story plays out. This is a good film that should be great, and the worst part is it seems to know that as well as we do.