SNL comedian Kyle Mooney’s Brigsby Bear is a bizarre combination of Super 8, The Truman Show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and H.R. Pufnstuf, two movies and two television shows that have never in the history of the world been grouped together in the same sentence.
It’s also one of the most subtly wonderful movies to debut this summer.
Directed and co-written by two of Mooney’s childhood friends, SNL director Dave McCary and screenwriter Kevin Costello, respectively, Brigsby Bear searches for a deeper meaning behind nostalgia and pop culture obsessions.
“I am an incredibly nostalgic person,” Mooney said in a press release. To prove it, he’s the proud owner of an enormous collection of ’80s and ’90s children’s VHS tapes.
“[It] brings me back to an innocent time when I was truly happy and would just be lost in my imagination and the characters and universes on screen.”
When James (Mooney) discovers his favorite television show, Brigsby Bear Adventures, has been canceled, he sets out to do what any superfan would do: grab a video camera and a group of friends and finish the story himself.
It’s undoubtedly a work of fiction, but it largely encompasses Mooney’s and McCary’s career journeys — from elementary school friendships to gaining a following from their YouTube comedy videos to hitting it big on SNL.
“The film mirrors a lot of our experience falling in love with storytelling,” McCary said before a July 11 screening at Landmark’s E Street Theater in Washington, D.C. “You’ll see some thematic connective tissue to how Kyle and I started making videos together.”
Two of the cameos in the film represent this idea even further: Mark Hamill (Star Wars) as James’s father and SNL alum Andy Samberg, who encourages James to continue making his film. As perhaps the two most well-known actors in the film — aside from Claire Danes as a therapist — they each embody a different form of entertainment that inspired the film: Hamill, of course, from a cult classic, and Samberg as a member of The Lonely Island, a comedy trio that began on YouTube and ended up at SNL.
“Lonely Island had already paved the way for YouTube sketch comedy success,” McCary said in a press release. “We were big fans of theirs and had watched them succeed as they created a following on the Internet, got discovered by SNL, and then thrived on SNL. That path both inspired and validated our ambition to make these shitty little videos.”
Using the same awkwardly silent and strange persona he now frequents on SNL digital shorts — and developed in those little YouTube videos — Mooney is the king of awkward comedic delivery. The persona actually works much better in the film than it does on SNL because there’s a backstory to justify it.
Without a real ability to understand current culture, James heavily relies on lingo that other characters use — call this the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt portion. After attending his first high school party (yes, James is 25; no, it’s not actually as weird as you’d think) and overhearing someone use the phrase “dope as shit,” he goes on to describe anything mildly cool as “pretty dope as shit.”
There’s a scene in which James returns from seeing his first movie in an actual theater and is overcome with excitement, unable to fathom what he just experienced. The accompanying line Mooney delivers, “If you had seen it … it was just … on a gigantic screen,” is extraordinarily unfunny on paper, but his delivery is so uniquely strange and weird it evoked one of the biggest laughs of the night.
There’s a moment anyone in entertainment remembers from their childhood: the moment someone, probably their parents, introduced them to a movie that changed the course of their life; the moment they realize they want to be a part of the magic of what they just saw, before they run off to figure out exactly how they can be a part of it.
That very moment is the essence of this film. It’s a multi-part loving homage to cult classics, ironic obsessions, nostalgic revivals and the resourceful and democratic nature of YouTube culture. It’s a nod to culture of the past from a group of men who rose to success through the entertainment medium of today. And it’s also just a ton of fun to watch.
Brigsby Bear opens in theaters Aug. 4