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CINEMA: Smarter Than The Average Bear

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BRIGSBY BEAR (Directed by Dave McCary, 100 minutes, 2017, USA)

CHRIS MALENEYBY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY If Philip K. Dick was alive today, he may well have ended up writing something a little like Brigsby Bear. The movie bears many of his hallmarks: a seeming post-collapse family unit; an obsession with obscure television; the utter distortion of seeming-reality; and the ultimate question of how society copes with aberrant individuals. However, this is not a Philip K. Dick movie, and the creative team never intended it to be. What we have instead is equal parts fish-out-of-water comedy and bildungsroman drama with a bizarre setup that ultimately resolves into a familiar mold of meta movie-making.

It’s difficult to discuss specifics of the plot without giving away twist-ruining details beyond this: Brigsby Bear concerns a young man, James (SNL’s Kyle Moonie, who also co-wrote the screenplay), whose whole life has been instructed by and obsessed on a children’s TV show about an intergalactic bear trying to save the universe. When his family encourages him to seek meaning in life beyond television, James gathers a group of friends who help him to make a movie based on the titular television program. The process of crafting his vision helps resolve James’s internal anxieties, and gives him a path to maturity.

If dramatic comedies tend to be either more dramatic or more comedic, then Brigsby Bear falls more on the comedic side of the line. However, instead of making the drama seem ridiculous, here both elements highlight each other, rather than cancel the other out. The hilarity makes the interspersed drama all the more palpable. Because the film is trying for comedy, though, the drama’s deeper questions — like what it means to be raised thinking that “curiosity is an unnatural emotion” — are left underdeveloped in favor of more amusing, lighthearted themes, like why making art is fun and good.

Elsewhere, the comedic focus eliminates characters that a more dramatic movie would explore. Somewhat egregiously, James’s mother disappears after the first act. Later, the subplot of James’s love interest is left largely unresolved, and in the third act, the movie brings us to a forced sequence in a mental hospital, which seems intended more to give Andy Samberg a cameo than do any service to the plot. The movie is only an hour and forty minutes long, so there isn’t really time to fully delve into the nuances of the story, and this can lead to some frustrated feelings of post-viewing confusion if you go looking too hard for deeper meaning.

All that said, this is a charming, funny, and inspirational film. Depicting a character utterly at odds with societal conventions who makes art to cope with changes in his life, Brigsby Bear encourages the audience to make art in their own lives. The acting is convincing and funny (Mark Hamill, James’s father, straddling the line between fatherly and insane is notably intriguing), the cinematography feels crisp and lifelike, and the comedy never comes at the expense of the characters, but is inspired by the bizarre interaction of a society intolerant to any deviation and a naive individual working their way to acceptance. While many of the questions and plots raised along the way are left unattended, Brigsby Bear is overall an entertaining, bizarre movie that blends genre and tropes, and leaves an audience happy, if not exactly satisfied.

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