The opening of “Brigsby Bear” has the disorienting feel of an alternate reality: Twenty-something James (“Saturday Night Live” cast member Kyle Mooney) lives in a bunker with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), where his favorite activity is watching VHS tapes of a public access-caliber kids TV show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures.”
Here we have a grown man, with a Brigsby Bear bedspread and dressed in a Brigsby Bear T-shirt, obsessing over the convoluted plot surrounding what amounts to a Barney knockoff. That’s disturbing enough. Then we see the poster on his bedroom wall, which reads: “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.”
Is this yet another glimpse of a post-apocalyptic world? Not exactly. After the feds burst through the front door, James learns that his “mom and dad” aren’t really his parents but kidnappers who abducted him as a baby. Also, the air outside isn’t toxic after all. Most disturbingly, Brigsby Bear was the invention of his fake father. James was the entire audience.
“We have quite a few things to go over here in terms of life,” says a kindly police officer, played by Greg Kinnear. And he’s right. The only thing the childlike James ever wants to talk about is a giant bear that no one else has ever heard of.
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This has all the makings of an increasingly tired genre. Have you heard the one about the white guy who refuses to grow up? In this case, at least, the main character has a good excuse.
But “Brigsby Bear” surpasses such comedies by moving in unexpected directions. More than anything, this is a story about pop-culture obsession. James can’t shake his love for his favorite character. Rather than suppress it, he decides to continue the story himself, seeking closure with a homemade movie that wraps up the long-running “Brigsby” saga in one final adventure.
James’ real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) aren’t thrilled. (And the fact that Watkins is a mere 13 years older than the 32-year-old Mooney is just one of many head-scratchers.) They don’t quite realize how creativity often functions as a salve — a way for James to escape into an imaginary world where he feels safe, while also coming to terms with how the real world functions. It’s fan fiction as coping mechanism.
Produced by the Lonely Island — the guys best known for making digital shorts on “SNL” — “Brigsby Bear” isn’t laugh-out-loud funny so much as gently comic. Although the high concept of director Dave McCary’s feature debut is novel, some of the beats are tired. Certain jokes feel recycled from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the Netflix series about a former captive. Both mine their main characters’ cluelessness for laughs.
The most conspicuously trite element of the story — from a script Mooney wrote with Kevin Costello — is James’ relationship with his newly discovered teenage sister (Ryan Simpkins). At first, she thinks he’s a weirdo because he doesn’t understand social cues, but her 180-degree change of heart feels preordained.
Flawed though that subplot is, it exemplifies one of the movie’s selling points: its warm tone. “Brigsby” never ventures into the caustic simply for the sake of comedy. These days, that’s refreshing. There aren’t many movies that value sweetness over cynicism.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying.