In the 1980s, four-quadrant studio comedies (i.e. for the whole family) peddled in relentlessly dark premises that directors then brightened up with wholesomeness. Brigsby Bear, the debut comedy from longtime Saturday Night Live writer Dave McCary, harks back to the happy-go-lucky (but really not) '80s boom. Thirty-something James (Kyle Mooney) is wrested from the underground bunker life his "parents" April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamill) created for and inhabited with him. He's returned to his real family, having had no social contact since he was stolen as an infant with anyone outside of his ersatz "mom" and "dad." McCary could have gone dark: James is, after all, basically a feral child with no life skills, who's obsessed with the only TV he was allowed to watch -- a cheesy children's adventure show (Brigsby Bear) boasting video effects of the 8-bit era. But McCrary and Mooney ground this story in sincere emotion and mostly avoid straying into easy-laugh SNL shorts territory.
It's often charming to watch James stumble through his new life with the glee of Jake Gyllenhaal as Jimmy Livingston in Bubble Boy. Eventually, a family therapist (Claire Danes) confronts James with the facts that it was Ted who produced and starred in Brigsby Bear and that all the other people James was communicating with on the show's online forum were actually just his "parents." We see, briefly, devastation on James' face. But when the other actors aren't on the same page as Mooney, these gags come off as trite skits. Beck Bennett as a by-the-book detective and Andy Samberg as a rogue mental patient, even somewhat toned down, just don't meld with what McCary's created; they're in an entirely different movie.