Cocaine Bear is about the complicated bond between parents and children. No really, it is. There’s numerous generational pairings running between clouds of white powder, some good, some bad, all converging in a Georgia forest for a bloody trial by drug.
They had to graft some structure onto the bizarre inspiration behind the madcap comedy. I mean, a bear on cocaine? When you learn that actually happened your mind spins off in a hundred different directions, snippets of wild possibilities floating around in an amorphous haze of glee. But that kind of high only lasts for a few minutes. A movie must sustain itself for much longer, so characters, stakes, and a satisfying endpoint must be conjured without losing the absurdity of the hook, a balance Cocaine Bear strikes uneasily.
In case you don’t know the joyous story, a plane smuggling cocaine crashed in 1985, dropping its contents in the path of a now infamous black bear lovingly nicknamed Pablo Eskobear. After munching down on millions of dollars worth of the stuff, the bear’s insides exploded from the extreme overdose and it died next to its beloved find. The bear was taxidermied for posterity and can now be viewed as a roadside attraction in Kentucky.
So yeah, the actual story doesn’t feature the wild escapades you and Cocaine Bear imagined for its one-of-a-kind protagonist, but why let reality get in the way of a good story? Instead, director Elizabeth Banks continues her streak of mainstream frivolity, this time without the baggage of series expectations she shouldered with Pitch Perfect 2 and 2019’s Charlie’s Angels. Her name is proudly displayed in the open titles, which also includes the ‘based on a true story’ label and a quote from wikipedia, in case you aren’t picking up on the feigned import. From there, things get expectedly silly and surprisingly bloody, with a clever enough set of circumstances bringing a steady stream of human meatbags to the cocaine-fueled slaughter.
The main adventurers are hooky-playing kids Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (Christian Convery), with Dee Dee’s mom, Sari (Keri Russell), running bravely after them into the fray. More hesitant are O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s Daveed and Alden Ehrenreich’s Eddie, who are sent by Eddie’s drug lord father, Syd (Ray Liotta), to collect all his coke. These groups form whatever structure you can find in Cocaine Bear, namely contrasting the excellent parenting of Sari with the nightmare approach by Syd, with Eddie having to decide what kind of father he will be to his own young child. The various tourists and park employees they encounter at Chattahoochee National Forest bungle around them and the bear, dying either by a good old slash and munch or their own stupidity.
Certain deaths are more clever (and hence more fun) than others, with an admirable effort being made by Banks and writer Jimmy Warden to not repeat themselves. However, few rise to the outrageousness one expects, largely because the bear behaves in such a straightforward way.
In my mind, a bear on cocaine wouldn’t become a rote killing machine. Early scenes do imagine some strange behavior from the titular character, like rubbing exultantly against a tree and getting distracted by a butterfly, but as the film progresses its interests whittle down to mutilation or drug consumption. It’s a palpable miss in terms of possibility, one that stops the film from reaching the heights it should, but luckily there’s lots of bloody messes to partially make up for the lost potential.
Limbs fly early and often, and people stay alive with wounds that should be grievous for the sake of a joke. It’s all in good fun because the carnage is largely wrecked on characters whose traits skew towards the annoying, with the bear operating as if it’s handing out Darwin Awards. The only break from this rule is the wounds built up by Daveed, who along with Sari are the straight men in the madness. Much like in Ingrid Goes West, Jackson Jr. proves to be slyly hilarious, and he’s the only cast member who navigates the uneven material without missing a beat.
The bear itself is a knowingly halfhearted CGI effort. At no point do you think a bear is on screen with any of the human cast members, and that doesn’t matter in the least. It’s just one of many ways this movie is screaming at you to not take it seriously, but under that din is a movie that’s nowhere near as wild as it wants to be. There’s still enough fun, though, to fill up its brief existence, which is a lot more than the real bear got from its adventure.
Release: available now in theaters
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Writers: Jimmy Warden
Cast: Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ray Liotta, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Brooklynn Prince, Christian Convery, Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson