'Brigsby Bear': 'Saturday Night Live' actor's star turn is funny and quietly profound

Buried in the title of the funny, good-hearted and quietly profound Brigsby Bear is the hint of a pun.

Saturday Night Live‘s Kyle Mooney stars as James, established in the prologue as a young man who’s been raised in captivity but does not know it. The underground bunker he sees as his home is a also prison (or brig, as the sailors say).

He’s kept there not by locks or keys but by subtle indoctrination. The television program (a sci-fi-tilted kiddie show with a bear named Brigsby) he watches obsessively is secretly produced by his parents as a tool for capturing (in every sense) his imagination. Stay indoors, obey your parents, worship the family unit — he takes these to heart, and so wants for nothing, except actual reality.

When the FBI raids the home and “liberates” James, he’s lost. He has no knowledge of the outside world, and no desire to live in it. Attempts to place him in a family (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins) and to engage with a psychiatrist (Claire Danes, channeling Louise Fletcher) are fruitless.

Worse, James cannot understand or accept that there will be no more episodes of the Brigsby show. We sense he faces a kind of breakdown, especially as authorities — Greg Kinnear is the police officer who handles his case — push him to grow up, to abandon his attachment to the show.

Here Brigsby Bear takes an ingenious turn, concocted by Mooney and collaborator/director Dave McCary. Both men are products of today’s Neverland world of prolonged childhood and media saturation, and they know its contours: Its obsession with the artifacts of pop culture (especially visual); the way it privileges the status of the arcane and the trivial. (Their comedy — first on YouTube and now on SNL — often revolves around it.)

They are able to anticipate how today’s world would respond to a story like James’ – to the the viral news of a television show that only one person had seen.

It’s the quintessential cult show.

Suffice it to say that as James is pushed into the real world, the real world is more than willing to meet him halfway, in a way that is touching and charming, and at the same time plausible.

James, Mooney proposes, is a heightened version of a generational archetype, patronized (enabled?) by mammoth entertainment corporations that now devote prodigious resources to stories that expand and prolong the fantasies of youth.

He and McCary are in on the joke – they cast Mark Hamill as the man who produces the Brisgby show. But there is nothing snide or superior about their insight. Instead, they turn it unexpectedly into an occasion for warmth and decency (I don’t want to say too much about what the actors do here, but Jorge Lendeborg Jr. has a nice role as one of James’ new friends).

Mooney’s performance is astute. He plays James’ estrangement and confusion straight, without so much as a wink. If he’s aware of the camera, he shows no sign. And his script (written with Kevin Costello) is just as insightful, not just about culture and media and arrested development, but about larger notions of curation and filtration and technology.

We’re all world-builders now, even if we don’t all build worlds this humane.

Movies

Brigsby Bear

    • Directed by Dave McCary. With Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, Matt Walsh, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and Ryan Simpkins. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

    • Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins

  • Parents guide: PG-13 (drug use)
  • Playing at: Ritz Five, AMC Voorhees