On a scale of one to Adam Sandler screaming, Kyle Mooney would rate a solid six on the comic manchild-o-meter. Watch the YouTube videos he shot with his old sketch group GoodNeighbor or his Saturday Night Live shorts (we recommend his ill-advised freestyle battle against Kanye West), and you’ll see how he’s carved out a tiny corner in the beta-male niche. The comedian can do delusional, full-frontal dude-ity, but his sweet spot is a shuffling, stammering awkwardness held over from early adolescence – the shy, just-south-of-geeky guy whose development isn’t arrested so much as incarcerated in solitary confinement.
Mooney is the main reason to see Brigsby Bear, the sort of indie dramedy that wears its on-the-spectrum quirk on its sleeve. Which, in this case, is attached not to some tight-fitting hipster jacket but a cartoonish bear suit – specifically, the costume of a fuzzy-wuzzy TV character named Brigsby, who fights off a goateed Méliès-ish moon named Sun-Stealer. Imagine a cheesy 1980s kids’ show set in a candy-colored postapocalyptic setting, one where the hero ends each installment by intoning, “Prophecy is meaningless, only trust your family unit!” Something seems more than a little off with this lo-fi sci-fi saga, but the oddball aspects don’t bother James (Mooney). The twentysomething gentleman is … well, obsessed is too mild a word for how he feels about this serial. He owns every episode on VHS tape. He endlessly debates storyline minutiae. His room is a shrine, from Brigsby bedsheets to a poster of the beloved animal declaring that “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!”
Mom (Jane Adams) and Dad (a jedi-bearded Mark Hamill) encourage their boy’s fixation, just so long as he doesn’t go out into what he’s told is a polluted, ravaged world. Then one day, the cops bust down the door, and James’ folks are hauled away. It seems they aren’t his actual parents – the couple abducted him when he was a baby, and have raised James as their own, in complete isolation, ever since. (Take another look at the name of the villainous TV-show moon again.) Even worse, in the young man’s eyes, is that there is no real television program called Brigsby Bear – it was simply something that Pops filmed in a nearby warehouse solely for his ward’s own entertainment and edification, a cult series with a rabid audience of one. Reunited with his birth parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), assigned a therapist (Claire Danes) and forced to reintegrate into society, James is lost without his heroic intergalactic grizzly to guide him. There’s only one thing left to do, he decides: bring his furry idol’s final, winner-take-all adventure to life himself.
What follows is a sort of typical freaks-and-geeks free-for-all laced with pathos, as our hero recruits a motley crew of friends, family members and the Fed (Greg Kinnear) investigating his case – and who believes his true calling might be on the stage – to help him film a big-screen Brigsby Bear blockbuster. Director Dave McCary, an SNL writer who goes back a long ways with Mooney, knows how to work this particular subgenre of Sundance flick: the bonding-misfits-make-good story keen to remind us that social outcasts … they’re so like us! (It’s not surprising that it premiered at the Park City festival, given that the film doubles as a huge valentine to the communal yet monomaniacal notion of D.I.Y. moviemaking.) He’s also aware that it means dialing back on the more unique aspects so as to emphasize the triumph-of-the-underdog spirit, however, and by the time you get to the whimsical group-hug third act, you genuinely miss the uncomfortable, stand-out sense of weirdness.
None of which detracts from what Mooney’s doing here with this recessive dude, all confused looks, dorky overenthusiasm and nerdy drill-down chatter about his favorite show’s mythology. As the film’s co-writer, he’s partially responsible for the story’s slouch toward familiarity. But he’s also the one that keeps Brigsby Bear from feeling solely like an over-extended SNL digital short – not for nothing is this produced by the Lonely Island guys – or simply an eccentric goof. Watch how the comedian commits to this grown-up kid who’s seen his world come crashing around him, and then takes solace in the belief that you can’t spell catharsis without “art.” There’s an investment here on his part that almost make up for the story’s stock beats. Mooney is the one that gives Brigsby Bear – and Brigsby Bear – a soul.