Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The genius of UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT is that the inherently dark subtext of the narrative about a young woman kidnapped, held hostage for 15 years and set free to roam an unknown world is disguised by hilarious tomfoolery, joyful exuberance and colorful characters who are more messed up than she is. It’s deeply layered material that makes you take quite a few steps back to glimpse its pitch-black undertones. Though it shares similar character and narrative goals, director Dave McCary’s BRIGSBY BEAR barely makes its audience lean back to see what darkness it’s hiding. It’s far from genius and, even worse, it’s painfully unfunny. Whatever sweet sense of comedic spirit the filmmakers were going for (evidenced in infrequent blips) gets completely drowned out by the serious undertones morphing into overtones.
VHS tapes, posters and various consumer products crowd the bedroom of James (Kyle Mooney). It’s all from his favorite show, Brigsby Bear, a low-budget children’s program starring a life-size Teddy Ruxpin-like character. He’s obsessed, poring over episodes methodically, posting fan theories on an underground internet network and, well, pleasuring himself to thoughts of one of the female stars (Kate Lyn Sheil). James’ world is upended when he learns not only that he was kidnapped by Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams) and unknowingly held hostage in a bunker all these years, but also that his beloved show was created for an audience of one: him. As he struggles to fit into a new world (the real world), he can’t help but be fixated on the abrupt ‘cancellation’ of Brigsby. It’s then that he sets out to take back the narrative his kidnapper started and spin it into his own.
Much like Kimmy, James’ unbridled child-like enthusiasm should be adorably charming and carry most of the load. Yet it doesn’t, because he’s constantly too flush with stiff, weirdo awkwardness. On more than a few occasions, Mooney and Kevin Costello’s script wants us to laugh at James rather than with him during a handful of fish-out-of-water sequences. It doesn’t feel good to mock our protagonist when we should be cheering on his quest. We suffer from an overwhelming sense of not knowing what to root for – other than wishing James gets proper help from his psychiatrist (Claire Danes). And the LARS AND THE REAL GIRL-inspired solution that has everyone pitching in to help doesn’t fly as well as it did there, here. It’s clunky, disingenuous and cloying.
Lacking an assured commitment to its protagonist’s outlandish, audacious point of view (the only one that matters), instead the film unsuccessfully adds others’ far more grounded realities. Missing is the cutting cynicism of DOGTOOTH. The shadow of Chauncey Gardiner looms large, but it never gets there (get it?!). Albeit brief and perhaps unwittingly, it dips into THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN territory, but blessedly doesn’t wade too far in. We shouldn’t empathize with James’ biological parents (played by Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), who’ve been without their son for decades, or his sister (Ryan Simpkins), who now has her lifestyle cramped by a sibling’s presence – and yet here we are. We shouldn’t sympathize with the kidnappers’ motives – and, yet again, here we are. We should be focused on James’ determination to stay positive and achieve his movie making goals. There were multiple times where I didn’t know if I should be sad or laughing. I was just miserably bored.
BRIGSBY BEAR is really for a niche audience: those who find Mooney’s brand of off-kilter “comedy” funny. It’s not for everyone, which is too bad as with further craft and care, this could’ve been the warm, fuzzy, feel-good sleeper it desperately wants to be.
BRIGSBY BEAR is now playing in limited release, releasing nationally on August 18. For a list of theaters, go here.