Movie News & Reviews

‘Brigsby Bear’ is almost great and not quite good

Kyle Mooney in “Brigsby Bear.”
Kyle Mooney in “Brigsby Bear.” Sony Classics

You ever see someone halfway through a magnificent skating routine, and they go for the triple lutz and go splat? But that’s OK. They get back up! They’re determined to win back the crowd, and so they go for the triple axel … and end up bouncing on the ice. What do you say about a routine like that? It was great, until it wasn’t? Can you really call this mix of triumph and disaster an average experience?

This is something like the situation we have with “Brigsby Bear.” It’s imaginative and even brilliant at times, and then it starts to cave in. But then we think no, maybe not, maybe everything’s going to be made right … until it collapses completely. A cynical, smart movie about the dangers of mass culture gives way to a sentimental embrace of the very thing it’s criticizing.

Yet “Brigsby Bear,” despite its ultimate failure, is a movie to reckon with and think about. It’s a critique of our time, a symptom of our time and a victim of our time all wrapped into one bizarre tale — what you’d almost call a parable — about a young man who grows up obsessed with a TV show that was created just for him.

The only way to talk about this movie is to give away what happens in the first 15 minutes. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s something of a big reveal, so if you want to see “Brigsby” pure, with no spoilers at all, go no further …

Still there? OK, here’s the deal: Kyle Mooney, who co-wrote the script, plays James, a young man whose entire imaginative life is built around a long-running sci-fi TV show, about a heroic bear fighting the forces of intergalactic evil. James is obsessed, and he has nothing else in his life. He exists in what seems like a post-apocalyptic world, living with his parents but unable to leave the grounds of the house or even step outside without a gas mask.

And then it turns out that everything in his life is a lie. His parents aren’t his parents, but people who kidnapped him when he was an infant. The air is fine. There was no apocalypse. And the TV show was something written and created by his kidnapper/would-be father (Mark Hamill). James is obsessed with Brigsby Bear — it remains at the center of his life — but no one else has ever seen the show.

So that’s the first 15 minutes, and from there, obviously, the movie must deal with James’ integration into actual reality with his real parents back in the real world. But just that brilliant start gives us lots of ideas to wrestle with. “Brigsby Bear” shines a light on the rewards and ultimate dangers of popular culture. What gives James an imaginative outlet in the barren desolation of his early life becomes an impediment to his finding his place in a real world ready to embrace him. He remains obsessed with “Brigsby Bear.”

And here’s the powerful thing about this: Very soon we realize that James isn’t so different from half the people in America. After all, is it any less twisted to be obsessed with a TV show that everyone has seen, as opposed to one that was made especially for you?

Basically, James is enthralled by a fantasy, created by damaged, self-interested people — a fantasy that is actively doing him harm, that is taking him away from meaningful contact with other human beings — a fantasy into which he has invested all his longing — a fantasy that has become the moral architecture of his reality structure.

So what do the filmmakers do with this brilliant, caustic metaphor they’ve created? They go soft. They act as if they have no idea what they are onto, and maybe they don’t. Midway through, they turn the ship around and head “Brigsby Bear” straight into sappiness and fake emotion.

This seems gutless on the part of the filmmakers, or maybe just cynical on a grand scale. But it’s probably just the misguided sentimentality of people too much inside the pop culture bubble to see what they were almost saying.

Brigsby Bear

1/2

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material, teen partying. Starring: Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill and Jane Adams. Director: Dave McCary. Running time: 100 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

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