In the 1980s, four-quadrant studio comedies (i.e., for the whole family) peddled in relentlessly dark premises that directors then brightened up with wholesomeness: Three Men and a Baby features an orphaned infant who is mistakenly given away to drug dealers; Ghostbusters boasts multiple fatalities at the hands of an accountant turned Necrobeast; Big is a deeply sad exploration of aging, and it’s also messy in its ethical questioning of whether it’s OK to have sex with a child stuck in an adult’s body. Yet these comedies and others endure. Their entry into the canon of family entertainment — despite their darkness — can be attributed to the directors’ intense focus on the earnestness of their characters; parents could overlook the heroin plot line in Three Men as long as the bachelors displayed a light, carefree attitude that, in the film’s universe, would inevitably triumph over evil.
Brigsby Bear, the debut comedy from longtime Saturday Night Live writer Dave McCary, harks back to the happy-go-lucky (but really not) ’80s boom. Thirty-something James (co-writer Kyle Mooney) is wrested from the underground bunker life his “parents” April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamill) created for and inhabited with him. He’s returned to his real family, having had no social contact, since he was stolen as an infant, with anyone outside of his ersatz “mom” and “dad.” McCary could have gone dark: James is, after all, basically a feral child with no life skills, who’s obsessed with the only TV he was allowed to watch — a cheesy children’s adventure show (Brigsby Bear) boasting video effects of the 8-bit era. But McCary and Mooney ground this story in sincere emotion and mostly avoid straying into easy-laugh SNL shorts territory.
Before the cops pluck James from the desert bunker, he’s content and totally fulfilled, completely unaware that he’s a prisoner. Ted, whom we later learn got rich creating a Teddy Ruxpin–type talking bear, has populated their strange world with animatronic foxes and lightning bugs James believes are real — he’s never known anything else. His development is arrested in his teenage years, at odds with his scruffy face and the wrinkles just starting to show around his eyes. But Mooney pulls off this character by not trying too hard; he’d be a pretty great undercover narc.
Eventually, a family therapist (Claire Danes) confronts James with the facts that it was Ted who produced and starred in Brigsby Bear, and that all the other people James was communicating with on the show’s online forum were actually just his “parents.” Mooney takes a moment to let that sink in. We see, briefly, devastation on James’ face. Later, after James goes to the theater to see the movie Hockey High — the first one he’s ever watched — with his real dad (Matt Walsh), James relays with wonder the entire sensation to his real mom (Michaela Watkins): how big the screen was, why it was different from Brigsby Bear. James possesses all the stuttering, meandering innocence of a kid. The actors play the scene straight, and McCary focuses on the parents’ concerned faces, not for laughs.
It’s often charming to watch James stumble through his new life with the glee of Jake Gyllenhaal as Jimmy Livingston in Bubble Boy. At his first party, James attempts to endear himself to some jocks by calling across the room, “I’m James! I really like your clothes!” But when the other actors aren’t on the same page as Mooney, these gags come off as trite skits. Beck Bennett as a by-the-book detective and Andy Samberg as a rogue mental patient, even somewhat toned down, just don’t meld with what McCary’s created here; those two are in an entirely different movie.
But one of the most interesting facets of this film has to be McCary’s tender treatment of contemporary fan culture. As James continues in his development, he realizes that he, too, can direct a movie. And now that Ted is in jail, it’s up to him to finish the Brigsby Bear series, so he enlists some new young friends of his sister (Ryan Simpkins) to help him re-create all the characters and special effects of the show.
The scenes of low-budget film-set camaraderie bring to mind the recent documentaries Raiders! and The Wolfpack, movies about ragtag friends/siblings banding together to re-create their cinematic favorites with whatever props were available to them. James is a lucky character because he’s stepping into a culture — the present one — that’s come to a point of near-fetishization of classic and often obsolete media, so it’s believable that he could form friendships in this way, despite his cringingly awkward social skills. McCary’s lucky, too, because he’s mirroring that same admiration for classic media in the tone and style of Brigsby Bear, and American moviegoers are mired in the idea that “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” Well, McCary does, at least.