BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Many kids get obsessed with their favorite TV show and characters. Perhaps it’s Minnie Mouse, Sesame Street or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Whatever or whomever it is, they typically enjoy sharing their experiences with their friends. When we first meet James, he is staring, fully-engaged, at an odd, poorly produced show that appears to be a relic from the 1970’s. His room is packed with franchised merchandise like a bedspread, a lamp, toys, and even a stuffed animal. We immediately notice two problems: we don’t recognize this talking TV bear and James appears to be not a child, but a twenty-something with a 3 day beard growth.

Kyle Mooney has gained a following with his work (especially his quirky short films) on “Saturday Night Live”. Here he collaborates with director Dave McCrary (another SNL stalwart) and co-writer Kevin Costello on their first feature film. Mr. Mooney also stars as James, the “Brigsby Bear” expert who was kidnapped as an infant, held captive in a desert bunker and brainwashed by his captor “parents” Ted and April (an excellent Mark Hamill, Jane Adams).

Being confined and isolated in a controlled environment with only artificial culture in no way prepares James for the long-delayed release back into the wild known as society. His biological parents Greg and Louise (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins) are thrilled to reunite with their long lost son, and very patient with James’ struggles to assimilate.

James is unceremoniously dumped into the real world without his one security blanket: a TV bear that doesn’t exist. He goes from being disconnected from the outside world to being disconnected inside a new world he doesn’t know or recognize. Despite the pressures he is up against (police, family, new friends), he refuses to let go of his obsession.

It’s at this point where we really root for Mooney and McCrary to embrace the weirdness. Instead, the story takes a bit of a conventional turn and we find ourselves no longer reveling in oddity, but instead cheering for James to continue influencing those who initially viewed him as the proverbial fish out of water. The film ends up as a creative story about creativity … if that’s what it’s about (or if it’s about anything).

Strong supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as Detective Vogel (with a secret passion), Ryan Simpkins (sister of Ty) as James’ somewhat reluctant sister, and Alexa Demie and Jorge Lendeborg Jr as the new friends who come to appreciate him for his perspective. Claire Danes is a misguided psychiatrist, Buck Bennett is a detective, Andy Samburg appears an acquaintance, and Kate Lyn Scheil is Arielle (and Nora).

The film can best be described as Funny-Sad, and a blend of ROOM (isolated and held captive), NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (a quirky dude), BEING THERE (an innocence that influences others), and ENCINO MAN (a guy being introduced to a new world). It has an emotional and heartfelt climax that is crowd-pleasing, and certainly deserves bonus points for not being a superhero movie, remake, sequel or reboot. Still, it leaves us wondering what direction this could have gone had the filmmakers remained true to the cause of embracing the weirdness.

watch the trailer:

 

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KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (2016)

October 20, 2016

keeping-up-with-the-joneses Greetings again from the darkness. Dozens of movies through the years make up the Spy Action-Comedy segment. Most of these lean heavily on either action (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Red, Knight and Day) or comedy (Austin Powers, Get Smart, Date Night). The latest entry from director Greg Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur offers a more balanced approach while being somewhat grounded in familiar suburbia. Perfect casting certainly helps.

Comedies are the toughest genre to review because the only thing that matters … does it cause you to laugh? … depends on the sense of humor of each viewer and even their frame of mind while watching. So what I can report is that the full theatre at my screening was filled with enthusiastic laughter multiple times, along with a pretty steady stream of chuckles and giggling. This will undoubtedly vary from the accounts of uppity film critics who will discount the basic plot and obvious laughs (which is the whole point).

A James Bond-type opening credit sequence sets the tone as we abruptly shift to watching Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) sending off their two sons to summer camp before returning home to their idealistic cul-de-sac suburban home. Things pick up when the new neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones, arrive … a seemingly perfect couple played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot. They are the type of couple who are beautiful to look at, stylishly dressed, and even show up with a blown-glass sculpture as a gift for their new neighbors.

Of course, this perfect couple is really married spies seeking information from the military weapons contractor where Jeff works as a Human Resources associate. It’s Karen who senses something is off about the perfect couple, which leads to her stalking Natalie all the way to a dressing room where she is comically intimidated by Wonder Woman in black lingerie. On a side note, Ms. Fisher does have a later sequence where she proves to be anything but a homely housewife, despite how that dressing room scene is presented.

The men head off for some male bonding – at a highly unusual specialty restaurant, leading to one of the more manic sequences in the movie. The four leads are all excellent, but it’s Gal Gadot who is the real surprise … and her scenes with Ms. Fisher are the film’s best. Both are allowed to shine, while the men are a bit more one dimensional. Galifianakis is the all-trusting good guy just happy to have some excitement in his life, while Hamm is the super cool spy (who wishes he wasn’t). Both men seem to enjoy the chance to make friends, while the women are a bit more focused on tasks at hand.

Director Mottola is known for his films Adventureland and Superbad, and writer LeSieur is best known for Me, You and Dupree. The impressive thing about this latest is that the comedy mostly derives from character and situational interactions, and the expected steady stream of punchlines never materializes. There is even some insight into marriages that have become a bit too predictable, and the challenges of making new friends when all available energy is devoted to parenting and making ends meet.

In addition to the four leads, there are some funny moments for Maribeth Monroe, Matt Walsh and Kevin Dunn. The brilliant Patton Oswalt is cast as the self-nicknamed villain, and is responsible for one of the film’s biggest laughs.

Of course, this is not subtle or high-brow humor, and the story line is predictable throughout. The laughs stem from the contrast of a subdued, comfy suburban life versus the sophisticated, over-accomplished jet-setting couple … laughs clearly enhanced by the talented leads. So while this seems like the kind of movie I would usually ignore, perhaps it arrives at a time when laughing is simply preferable to the daily grind of an embarrassing and humiliating Presidential race. So go ahead and give laughter a chance … it works even better than a stress ball.

watch the trailer: