The thing about Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear is that it’s a funny idea. That this funny idea was actually put on celluloid for something like $35 million only makes it funnier. In a way, the execution doesn’t even have to compete with the concept, because the concept is so good. This fact erodes the very necessity of quality—the tonally wobbly, too often unfunny horror-comedy can, and does, ride on its own fumes. I suspect for many, that will be enough. I’ll tell you what didn’t really work for me about it, but far be it from me to get between you and your cocaine-eating bear. If that’s what you want to see, Cocaine Bear’s got you. Go forth without fear.
Very loosely based on a true story about drug smuggling gone awry (that ended up not with a homicidal bear, but with a dead one), Cocaine Bear opens with a quote about the rarity of black bear attacks on humans in the wild (sourced from Wikipedia—funny!). It then proceeds to build a horror film in which a bear, albeit one hyped up on coke, attacks a bunch of humans, most of whom are about as one-dimensional as they would be in a slasher released around the time this movie is set (1985).
A variety of misguided individuals have found themselves in Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, where Cocaine Bear is running rampant after sucking down multiple packages of the drug. Some of these dopes are after the cocaine they know has been scattered in the woods as the result of the botched smuggling, some happen to just be there hanging out, some are rangers. None of them are particularly well drawn. Brooklynn Prince’s tween character Dee Dee says “shit,” Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s ranger Peter doesn’t like the word “animals” (he prefers “friends”), and O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s Daveed is hunting for the coke and able to take out a “gang of pubes” when they try to attack. Who is Keri Russell’s Sari? Well, when Ray Liotta (who died last year) asks, she has a rather simple answer: “I’m a mom.” A final mom, if you will.
But again, the characters are beside the point. The point is that they’re there to be ripped apart by the bear, who is high. The absurd gore, which features dismembered limbs, a man dropped on his head, and a woman strapped to a gurney that is ejected from an ambulance and then, overturned, scrapes along the asphalt for several feet, places the movie somewhere in the vicinity of extreme gross-out horror comedy like Piranha (and its 2010 3D remake).
The bear, though, is an issue. She’s computer-generated and looks it. The movie attempts to derive suspense from her proximity, and she is portrayed as a kind of unstoppable hulking brute—Jason Voorhees in a fur. At one point, she reaches through a small glass window in a door to claw at the face of someone standing in front of it, a shot cribbed from the first Nightmare on Elm Street. While Cocaine Bear paints an extraordinary circumstance and is in no way meant to represent ALL BEARS, I couldn’t help but be irked by the characterization of a large, vulnerable animal as a killing machine—it’s Jaws all over again (and we know for sure that movie did a number on shark populations). Given the state of the planet—I mean, look at the freak-show weather of this week—it seems morally askew to suggest nature is man’s true antagonist.
I know, I know. Cocaine Bear a goofy movie, not a handbook. It’s jokes. But using the primal, anthropocentric fear people have of larger animals and the drive to tame those animals (often with guns) as a way of fostering empathy with your nothing characters just will not get me to wave a flag for your dumb movie. If that sounds oversensitive, excuse me, it’s just where I’m at.
Cocaine Bear, though, wants to have its cake and let a bear steal one from a picnic basket, too. By its end, the bear is posited as a creature worthy of respect, after a tight 90 minutes have argued why it’s an absolute menace to be feared. The transmogrification from slasher villain to shrieking anti-hero along the lines of the T. Rex in Jurassic Park is a pulled punch, a way of shutting down scrutiny of the movie’s portrayal of its beast, a way of making it all OK.
I suspect this conceit will work much better for people who like very goofy humor and don’t demand a sense of truth in funniness. I could see Cocaine Bear becoming something culty that gets quoted for years. Banks directs with some flair—there is a particularly impressive, rapid sequence that involves the aforementioned ejection out of the back of an ambulance, another out the front, and a bear mauling inside—but there’s too much sloppiness elsewhere to really endorse her film as anything other than a mindless diversion. For one thing, the ‘80s setting is riddled with anachronisms: Aaron Holliday’s ambiguously gay Stache rocks a multicolored beaded necklace and bottle-bleached hair that screams rave queer (very ‘90s), and Dee Dee’s friend Henry (Christian Convery) describes the bear’s attack as “fucked.” Details like these will likely scan as minor quibbles for those who are dead set on seeing that bear eat that cocaine. But much like a line of shitty coke, this movie simultaneously made me feel nothing and yearn for more.