‘Cocaine Bear’ review: Elizabeth Banks’s film roars with laughter at itself, but audiences may just give a few snorts
Well, you certainly can’t accuse the makers of Cocaine Bear of making any false promises – the film is indeed about a bear that does cocaine, and that bear is unquestionably the star of the show. You get everything you would expect based on that premise: The bear snorting cocaine, the bear sneezing cocaine, the bear chasing after people it thinks has cocaine, the bear humping trees, the bear humping people, blood and guts from the bear attacking people who may or may not have more cocaine, the bear chasing after a brick of cocaine like it was a dog playing fetch, etc. Which brings us to the problem with Cocaine Bear, namely that the joke of a bear doing cocaine is pretty much the only thing it has, and one joke isn’t enough to sustain a feature film, no matter how funny it is. Basically, you already know going in whether or not you’re going to like Cocaine Bear, and while it’s hard to imagine the film converting any non-believers, it’s not hard to imagine some hyped-up audience members being slightly disappointed.
The film takes inspiration from a true story of a 175-pound American black bear that was found in northern Georgia after having ingested about 75 pounds worth of cocaine, which had been dropped from a plane by drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys in a hilarious cameo) in September 1985. In real life, the bear was found dead three months later, seemingly without having killed anyone. That story would make for a pretty boring film, so screenwriter Jimmy Warden has concocted a cadre of original characters/potential bear food to set on a collision course with his huge, high star: First, there’s the two thirteen year olds (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery) who skip school to hike to a waterfall in the state park where some of the cocaine was dropped, and the girl’s nurse mother (Keri Russell) who goes after them. Then there’s the park ranger (Margo Martindale) trying to keep the park safe from a trio of teens (Leo Hanna, Aaron Holliday, and J.B. Moore) terrorizing anyone who walks through it. Finally, there’s the drug dealer (Ray Liotta) who sends his son (Alden Ehrenreich) and his trusted drug runner (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to recover the cocaine from the plane drop, and the cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who will stop at nothing to bring whoever was behind that drug drop to justice.
Do these characters have names? Yes. Does it matter? Absolutely not. While not exactly clichés, the characters are pretty thinly written, each with one (and only one) defining trait to make the audience either sympathize with them or root for the bear to eat them. They may not have much to do, but the entire ensemble is having the time of their lives playing up the most absurd parts of the screenplay, for better and worse. This can lead to the hilarity of Margo Martindale shooting a gun her character has clearly never used before, but more often it leads to characters straight-up mugging for the camera with their jaws open as the bear does something crazy.
Which brings us right back to the problem with Cocaine Bear: It really only has one joke, and it’s right there in the title. Warden has come up with a good amount of variations on the theme of what would happen when a bear gets high on cocaine, but when you get right down to it, it’s just the same scene over and over again. It’s funny, at least some of the time, but always in the same “isn’t this ridiculous?!” kind of way that can only come from someone who thinks this is the funniest thing in the world, even when it’s not. Only once, during a chase scene between the bear and an ambulance, does it feel like the film is really making good on the all-out absurdity of its premise. This lack of comic variety is made even worse by the fact that neither Warden nor director Elizabeth Banks have figured out how to keep the energy up when the bear is not on screen. The performers do their level best, but these characters simply aren’t compelling, and most of the attempts at humor between the humans fall flat. If it weren’t for the natural appeal of the performers, it would be hard to root for anyone in this film at all.
But then, that’s kind of the point: No one goes to a film called Cocaine Bear to watch the humans caught in the bear’s path. Of course you’re meant to root for the bear! Thankfully the bear is yet another great CGI creation from the geniuses at WETA, delightful one moment and disgusting the next. It’s clear that most of the film’s budget went to making the bear feel as real as possible, and she has a wonderfully tactile feel – you’d want to cuddle up next to her if not for all the white powder on her face and the blood dripping menacingly from her teeth and claws. You want to spend time with the bear in large part because she looks so convincing, and her wonderfully expressive face will surely dominate internet memes for years to come. Her film, though, is solid entertainment that doesn’t reach its full potential. Turning a strange, four decade-old local news story into a piece of self-consciously campy urban mythology was a great idea, but the final product is short a few grams.
Universal Pictures will release Cocaine Bear in theaters on February 24, 2023.