Though it was co-written by and stars Kyle Mooney, and was directed by Mooney’s long-time friend and SNL segment director Dave McCary, Brigsby Bear is about a million miles from your typical SNL star movie, and not just because it wasn’t produced by Lorne Michaels. Where those are performer driven, Brigsby is almost ruthlessly conceptual. Where those treat their scripts as jumping off points and go for the improv jokes, Brigsby constantly eschews them in favor of narrative, trading throwaway laughs for real feelings.
If I read that last sentence and hadn’t written it, I’d probably think it sounds terrible, which is why it feels like a risk. But Brigsby Bear is as inspiring as it is fun to watch, a thoroughly lovely film. It succeeds on a level we rarely see, and that’s probably because Kyle Mooney is such a rare performer. I went to college in San Diego, where Mooney and McCary grew up, and Mooney’s “Inside Socal”/”Socal Report” sketches, both pre and post-SNL, always struck me as incisive, accurate to an almost brutal degree. And yet Mooney always portrayed these troubled, inarticulate surf bros in such a way that they were, yes, comical buffoons, but largely good-natured ones who seemed like they could use a hug.
In a world where “give it more heart” has become a cliché, a mandate that frequently defangs what might otherwise be sharp comedy, Mooney has a singular facility for nuance that allows empathy and ridicule to coexist. He creates the kind of character that makes you say “ha, what a dumbass,” but as a term of endearment, the way you might say it to a close friend, or to yourself. His failed stand-up comedian character, Bruce Chandling, is another perfect example, a character who’s obnoxious (and painfully accurate), but where the joke is more that he needs a friend than that he’s a piece of shit.
That sensibility suffuses Brigsby Bear, which Mooney co-wrote with Kevin Costello. It takes a bizarro premise that feels like it could be the set up to either a broad, fish-out-of-water farce or a bizarro alty absurdist lark and turns it instead into a weirdly affecting love letter to making stuff with your friends. And it should be lost on no one that it was the product of Mooney, McCary, and Costello making stuff with their childhood friends.
I sat down with Mooney and McCary this week to figure out how (and why) they’d told a story about that most abused and exploited of phenomena — child-like wonder — and actually made it good.