It’s a worthy ambition to make horrible subjects wacky; laugh or you’ll cry. But despite its lofty aim and a cast including Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes and Mark Hamill, sugary-sweet “Brigsby Bear” feels as if it was made by and for well-meaning lightweights.
It stars deadpan “SNL” regular Kyle Mooney as James, a 20-something who was kidnapped as a baby and is growing up in a rural geodesic dome with minimal human contact. Liberated by the police, he rejoins his real family and is befriended by high school teens who become the “Kidnap Kid’s” closest kindred spirits.
Like many indie comedies about a young man’s coming of age, it is quirky and sentimental to a fault. It’s all over the map script-wise and less engaging than its creators think. It’s off-kilter — and not in a good way.
At the outset we see man-child James being brought up by his fake parents on a daily diet of instructive, orderly, awkward dinner table conversation to shield him from the purportedly toxic world outside the dome. His greatest pleasure is watching “Brigsby Bear Adventure” children’s videos, which offer uplifting themes wrapped in a surreal, low-budget, live-action “H.R. Pufnstuf” production style.
That obsession follows him back to reality following his rescue. Discovering that the Brigsby videos were made by his captives just for him, he tries to keep the series going by producing fresh episodes with his new friends and sharing them on the internet. Geeky and good-spirited, he begins to generate an online following. Well, why not? People can’t watch cat videos forever.
Turning a story about youth kidnapping with a subtext of abuse into meaningful entertainment is a massive challenge, but hardly impossible. Long ago, Stanley Kubrick mixed the droll with the dark in “Lolita,” transforming the cross-country travels of Humbert Humbert and his nubile stepdaughter into parodic emotional slapstick. Presently on Netflix, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” makes its sparkly heroine, after being held for years underground, a batty, resilient fish out of water enjoying her newfound freedom. Each finds ways to make its eccentric characters magnetic in their engaging oddity.
That doesn’t happen here. Mooney fixes a permanent grin on James, an effect that seems more cloying than appealing. We never learn who James really is. What does he believe in? What does he stand for? Appearing in his homemade videos in a Brigsby costume that looks like Pooh Bear conjoined with Teddy Ruxpin, he’s happy, and he makes others happy, too. But his childish impulses don’t have a moral application. You could say he’s taking a stand for art in an imperfect world, but in a scenario this unclear you could say anything.