James Pope (Kyle Mooney) is the world’s biggest fan of the children’s TV program Brigsby Bear Adventures, a blend of education, uncanny valley puppetry and mystical sci-fi. His bedroom is full of Brigsby Bear merchandise. Videotapes of the episodes fill his shelves where one expects books would go. What James doesn’t know is that he is also the show’s only fan. Its creators, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), kidnapped James when he was a baby and have kept him captive, using the show as the young man’s sole outlet to the outside world. When police find Ted and April, and return the naïve James home to his parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), the bear-obsessed twenty-something has to learn how to function in a culture foreign to him.

The story for Brigsby Bear, a new comedy from director Dave McCary, has some fascinating questions at its core. For instance, how does someone with an intense attachment to a manipulative reality adjust to the real world? What does it mean when an important cultural document from your childhood becomes inextricably tied to a personal trauma? There is something intriguing and unsettling about connecting a gigantic, furry fictional creation to a form of Stockholm syndrome.

Unfortunately, star Kyle Mooney – who co-wrote the film with Kevin Costello – avoids exploring these darker issues. What should be an emotionally absorbing character study becomes suffocated by comedic pretensions. The writers have framed James’ difficult recovery and adjustment to the real world as a fish-out-of-water comedy with dashes of mawkish sentimentality.

By the film’s midpoint, James has decided he wants to direct a Brigsby Bear Adventures film. This puts all other integral moments – bonding time with parents, personal examination with a therapist – at bay. (Walsh, Watkins, and Claire Danes as James’s psychiatrist, Emily, are mostly wasted.) The film’s comedic detours would work more seamlessly if the protagonist’s history wasn’t so deeply disturbing. Imagine if the Oscar-winning Room abandoned the despair and abuse inherent to its first half and adopted a twee musical score and Sundance-approved aesthetic. You wouldn’t be too far off from this film’s mishandled tone.

Furthermore, Brigsby Bear is remarkably contrived. Any time James encounters a challenge in his pursuit to make a movie about the title character, the obstacle is solved without much trying. The detective studying James’s case (Greg Kinnear) has a history of stage acting and has no qualms about starring in the protagonist’s amateur film and letting him use props that are police property. The first friend James makes, high-schooler Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), just happens to be a budding animator. James even miraculously finds one of the actors from Brigsby Bear Adventures during a random stop at a roadside diner. That character, played by Kate Lyn Sheil, is meant to be a calming voice of reason to James, but the serendipity of her placement in the story is too much to accept.

The lone bright spot in the film is Mooney’s performance. Known best for his offbeat work on Saturday Night Live, the actor uses stilted speech and sad, searching eyes to express his character’s maladjusted state. Unfortunately, Mooney’s abilities as a screenwriter sour his best instincts as a comic actor.

Is Brigsby Bear Essential Viewing?

No. Brigsby Bear is one of the most disturbing films in recent memory, and it actually tries to pass as a quirky and heart-warming comedy.

Brigsby Bear opens Friday, August 4, 2017 at Cineplex Yonge Dundas. Check their website for more information.

Brigsby Bear Trailer