Cocaine, pursued by a bear
I’d like to start with a question. Maybe it’s a dumb one. Why does the bear have to be on cocaine? Bears are already ferocious meat-eaters. They are well known for attacking humans even when not high on drugs. You could just call this movie “Bear” and it wouldn’t be all that different. (And I would probably like it more. See, e.g., Bears.)
Nonetheless, the film is indeed Cocaine Bear. And it is based, ever-so-tenuously, on a true story. In 1985, a bear found a bunch of cocaine — $15 million’s worth. It ingested it and promptly died before it could commit any outrageous shenanigans. That obviously wouldn’t make for much of a movie, so it’s been expanded to give the bear some action during its trip.
This is the third movie directed by comedian Elizabeth Banks, and the second buzzy meme hit of 2023, following M3GAN. The premise is pretty much what it says on the tin: A bear ingests some nose candy and goes on a rampage. But there’s actually a lot more to the movie than that, and that is its first problem. There are too many human (non-bear non-cocaine) characters and incidents in this story, and none of them are fun.
The film opens with botched drug delivery: a smuggler sky-dives with packages of white powder as part of a smuggling operation, but splats into the ground instead of parachuting to safety, which scatters packages of cocaine everywhere. Enter: bear. Thus, one of the film’s threads follows a ring of drug dealers (including Ray Liotta in one of his last roles) trying to recover the stash scattered throughout the woods. Another thread involves Keri Russell in a pink jumpsuit trying to protect her two kids from the bear, which inevitably leads to some underwhelming mama bear versus mama bear parallels. Last, we have Margo Martindale as a park ranger, and it’s not much of a surprise to me (a Martindale ride-or-die) that she’s the single best part of the movie. She is campy and entertaining where the other actors can’t quite figure out what tone to use to elevate the material.
The bear itself is 100% CGI. I don’t think you could make this movie in 2023 without having a computer-generated bear, but it’s still a downer. I love real-ass bears in my movies. I immediately bump them up a rating. Even if I was down to clown with a CGI bear, I’m not sure I’d like this one. It looks okay about a third of the time; the rest of the time its uncanniness breaks the immersion.
The movie’s marketing suggest something much funnier than what’s delivered. The trailer has the tenor of Piranha 3D or Zombeavers. Cocaine Bear gets maybe halfway there: it peacocks its own silliness a few times (a flying severed limb, here; a bear vagina joke, there), but it’s not as consistently entertaining or giddy as either of those. (And I swear I’m not saying that just because this one has no nudity, although that is also true.)
There are grueling stretches of ten or fifteen minutes at a time where Cocaine Bear forgets its raison d’être and acts like it’s a normal indie crime thriller. It’s the backbreaker for the movie, which begs for a zesty, gag-heavy pace. Even vaguely competent drama feels dull given that we’re here for ursine horror comedy.
I’ll admit I laughed a few times. There are a few fun set pieces. When Martindale accidentally shoots a petty criminal in a panicked fear, I had a brief vision of a much more deranged Cocaine Bear, and I smiled softly. But the hit ratio is far too low, and if a movie like this can’t consistently make you laugh or cheer, it’s doing something wrong.
I am glad that silly, mid-budget horror comedies are getting made, and that general enthusiasm for this cinematic tone lifts the rating a bit. I’m even more glad that they’re making money. I just hope the next one is more fun.