February 24, 2023

Ryan Bordow

Review: ‘Cocaine Bear’ doesn’t fly as high as it should

In a perfect world, the creative process behind a movie called Cocaine Bear would involve at least a little of the substance. I mean, for god’s sake, it’s a comedy about a coked-up bear on a slaughter spree; the crew should be jonesing to unlock their too-confident wild sides. This thing should feel anarchic. But this is a flawed, fallen world we live in, and our Cocaine Bear doesn’t feel at all like the product of an amped-up bender—it feels like a bunch of suits in a conference room anxiously trying to please a fun-starved target market.

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Based extremely loosely on a true story, the film tracks the aftermath of a drug smuggler losing several bricks of cocaine in a national forest. A bear does the cocaine, and then it kills lots of people. In reality, the bear ate 75 pounds of cocaine, died, and was taxidermized for display at a Kentucky souvenir store. The killing is better, I think. At least it should’ve been.

Cocaine Bear, despite its promise, stars a lot of sober humans, but that doesn’t seem so bad in the opening minutes. Director Elizabeth Banks (of Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie’s Angels, unfortunately) initially presents the ensemble from a detached perspective, soaring above the trees and cycling through the caricatures like a perverse nature documentarian surveying her subject’s prey. But as the characters dispatch, it becomes clear that these are little Hollywood archetypes with stale Hollywood problems en route to tidy Hollywood solutions as they contrive their ways into run-ins with the bear. This isn’t violent spectacle; it’s a killer hook wrapped in the blandest possible packaging.

It's not like the humans were doomed to be boring. Alden Ehrenreich’s character, described by a nameless Wikipedia contributor as “a depressed alcoholic grieving the loss of his wife to cancer who works for his drug kingpin father and is tasked with retrieving the cocaine,” has enough going on (and going wrong) for a thousand black comedies. But the screenplay—one of the worst in recent memory—can’t think of anything to do with him but the minimum. Like every other character, you could swap out his personality without losing anything. Like every other character, he’s saddled with the worst one-liners this side of a Disney franchise. Like every other character, he groans about completely tangential problems but later feels better about them for no reason beyond the humans “needing” arcs—like the girl who dislikes her mom’s boyfriend but grows to accept him after surviving the bear (spoilers if you thought the film brave enough to kill off children) despite said boyfriend never appearing on screen or factoring into any dynamics whatsoever.

If this pro forma storytelling were done with a wink, the film would achieve the faux-sincere satire of, say, Wet Hot American Summer, which Cocaine Bear evokes by opening with the same song and casting young adults as teenagers. But neither director nor screenwriter nor anyone involved could find the right tone for this, save for character actress Margo Martindale, who has the fun the movie is too frugal to indulge in. Maybe if the visual language were anything but bog-standard—it’s so clean, calculated, and typical when it should feel freewheeling and chaotic. It’s shot like a churned-out Netflix thriller, down to low-light scenes being barely visible murk.

True to form, the film also skimps on the VFX. The bear looks fine, and it lands some laughs when it ignores the laws of physics, but most of the violence could be done with props on a stage. It’s that tame—certainly too tame for an R-rated B-movie. Even the film’s biggest selling point is a letdown. If you’re going the broad appeal route, at least go wild on the digital effects. It’s all such wasted potential. It should be a crime for a movie titled Cocaine Bear to be, at best, mildly amusing.