A story of one man’s invented universe
The official plot summary from Brigsby Bear’s production company reads as follows: “Brigsby Bear Adventures is a children’s TV show produced for an audience of one: James. When the show abruptly ends, James’ life changes forever, and he sets out to finish the story himself.”
This provocatively compact summary tells you more than you might at first think about this remarkable little comedy drama whose title mirrors the name of the TV cartoon that figures so centrally in the life of its main character. But in some ways it also tells you less than it might have about this movie’s peculiarities and appeal.
That main character is a young guy named James (he’s played by the charmingly goofy Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the film with Kevin Costello). When we first meet him, James lives in what looks like a kind of post-apocalyptic bunker with his ostensible parents, Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams). He appears to be a young adult, but he lives like a coddled child, with every day devoted to watching the latest episode of Brigsby Bear Adventures.
When he’s unexpectedly reunited with his biological parents, Greg and Louise Pope (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins), he finds himself in the midst of a prosperous suburban existence that, for him, is both eerily familiar and blandly alien. He’s a stranger in a strange land, which nonetheless welcomes him even as he seems somewhat shocked and baffled by what he finds.
The Brigsby Bear show, which James has archived in a massive and comprehensive collection of videotapes, becomes a kind of bridge between the contrasting lifestyles that he encounters with his two separate families. And the young man’s deep personal investment in continuing the Brigsby Bear story and its emerging mythology speaks to the power and importance of imagination, storytelling and myth-making in the shaping of individual selves and social bonds.
Mooney, Costello and director Dave McCary get extra points and kudos for the range and gravity of their imaginative concoctions here. Their film doesn’t manage to gather its disparate ironies, satirical and otherwise, into any kind of weighty and conclusive whole. But it does generate a kind of tragicomic vitality that is both caustic (children’s entertainment as white suburban gospel) and visionary (storytelling and fantasy as crucibles of community). Plus, it’s the kind of not particularly credible story that still manages to generate some very pertinent heat.
Mooney, of course, owns the role of James. Hamill is very good as the false father from whom James can’t quite separate himself. Greg Kinnear brings a giddy sort of conviction to the role of a police detective who somehow morphs into a full-time Brigsby Bear fan. Andy Samberg and Beck Bennett are also on hand as unlikely converts, and Claire Danes makes a couple of very striking appearances to no particularly significant end.