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.