‘Brigsby Bear’ Is A Charming Paradox, A Conceptual Comedy That Puts Characters First

The beauty of Brigsby Bear is that while it eventually comes to exemplify all of Hollywood’s most overused elevator pitches — it has heart! it’s a love letter to the creative process! it’s about family! — its own high-concept story is so idiosyncratic that it never would’ve survived a studio notes process. It’s quirky, but in the sense that you can’t quite fit it into the usual categories, not in the usual sense of commoditized kitsch.

The plots of studio comedies tend towards thin, but Brigsby Bear contains at least four separate premises that any other writers would’ve milked for an entire film. That’s what comedians and improvisers do; they stretch, they riff, they add tags, they squeeze laughs from an idea until it’s a desiccated dog turd turning white. Meanwhile Brigsby Bear feels like it’s leaving three jokes on the table in every scene. This is unconventional, but it allows Brigsby to zero in on a central theme — a feeling, really, about the joy and contagiousness of creative collaboration. Maximizing the joke potential of every moment might have distracted from the whole. It’s almost impressionistic. And for a movie operating at this level of earnestness, not feeling contrived is more important than riffing.

Brigsby Bear stars and was co-written by SNL‘s Kyle Mooney, but in most ways couldn’t be further from an SNL star’s starring vehicle (it also wasn’t produced by Lorne Michaels). You couldn’t picture Mooney’s Josh Pope headlining a corporate event in character or reading headlines on SportsCenter (like say, The Ladies Man). Brigsby is driven almost entirely by concept and story, and a particularly “out there” story at that, which is why I’m doing my best not to spoil any of it for you. Mooney, his co-writer Kyle Costello, and director Dave McCary (the latter a segment director at SNL) prioritize narrative evolution over a sellable concept, to a degree that’s not only unheard of but almost self-defeating.

Like music, comedy feels like it’s been steadily losing dynamic range in the internet years, favoring the loud and the broad and the instantly hilarious over peaks and valleys. If you only have a few seconds to make an impression, the concept better be immediately understandable. Neighbors. Step Brothers. Daddy’s Home: They’re almost self-explanatory, the story a riff on the title. Nothing against movies of that ilk individually, but like any dominant paradigm, it gets to be, well, a drone.

Brigsby Bear begins as the story of an insulated boy (Josh Pope, played by Mooney), living in some kind of compound off the grid, where his parents (played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) surround him with esoterica to further his isolation. (“CURIOSITY IS AN UNNATURAL EMOTION” blares a poster on Josh’s bedroom wall.) Specifically, he’s immersed in a bizarro ’80s-style cartoon starring a life-sized Teddy Ruxpin called “Brigsby Bear.”

Josh is both singularly obsessed, and living on a pop culture island of one, since no one else seems to know that his favorite show even exists. Mooney says he was inspired by kids on YouTube passionately expounding into webcams for audiences of four or five people. But just when you think Brigsby Bear is going to become this riff on fractured pop culture and cyberbalkanization, it becomes something else entirely — a sweet, understated ode to the joys of creative collaboration.

Mooney has a gift for playing self-deluded oddballs, exemplified by the bad stand-up, Bruce Chandling, or any of his inarticulate but existentially sad surf bros from Inside SoCal/The SoCal Report. Only they’re not just self-deluded and comical, they’re also deeply lonely, desperate for human connection in an amplified but universal way that makes them not only sympathetic, but also, weirdly, much funnier. On a less conceptual level, Mooney loves characters who garble vernacular in fascinating ways. (His Inside SoCal characters often just leave out entire words or syllables.) Josh Pope tries out new slang with the awkward boldness of a newborn foal learning to walk — at one point he says his dad “is doing golf at the stores” — which could’ve filled 20 more solid minutes if Mooney and McCary had been inclined to riff.

What’s unique about Kyle Mooney is that he seems to want earnestly to deconstruct oddballs, not just play them for laughs. That sensibility suffuses not just Mooney’s character, but everyone in the movie. Everyone has a dopey charm and hidden layers, from Greg Kinnear’s kindly police officer / secret theater nerd, to Matt Walsh’s dorky dad. Kinnear and Walsh are seasoned veterans, but even the fresh-faced teens playing Josh’s friends — movie-loving cool guy Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Daria-like sister Ryan Simpkins — feel like revelations.

There aren’t really any villains in Brigsby Bear, and… it’s refreshing, actually. Real life is plenty hard without some mustache-twirling Dynasty villain who’s made it his mission to destroy you. And the fact that you usually can’t pin your problems on one person just makes it harder. Maybe it’s because for the last 20 or so years pop culture has been so fascinated by the sociopath — your Patrick Batemans flex humping in the mirror, your Kevins Spacey murdering dogs or smashing religious statues and smirking into the camera — that the renewed focus on reasonably adjusted, well-meaning people trying to do right by each other and kind of f*cking it up is so compelling. Brigsby Bear is one of those movies that can write a conflict without a villain, and an insightful scene between not-particularly insightful or articulate characters.

It’s a nice movie about nice people, no more, no less. It’s studiously unbroad and fastidious in its refusal to be any kind of performer-driven SNL spinoff. The charming paradox of it is, that despite being entirely about concept and story, it ends up feeling like the ultimate expression of its star’s id — the generous performer who uses art as a way to understand the people around him.