It is September, 1985. Drug smuggler Andrew Thornton, realizing he’s being trailed by the feds, tosses hundreds of pounds of cocaine from an airplane and then makes a pratfall out the side door himself. His corpse lands on a particularly unfortunate citizen’s driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee, with $15 million worth of cocaine still strapped to his body. A significant portion of the stash tossed from the plane ends up in Chattahoochee National Forest, where it is discovered by a black bear.
This is the start of Cocaine Bear, the third feature helmed by multi-hyphenate Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2, Charlie’s Angels) from a script by Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen). It is also a true story. But it is from here where fact truly splits from fiction. The reality is a short, sad tale — bear eats cocaine, bear dies, the end — here Hollywood, as Hollywood is wont to do, imagines a much more fantastical tale with a much higher body count.
Cocaine Bear is a gross-out comedy of errors, a story of people being stupid and then suffering immense consequences as they all happen to cross paths in Chattahoochee National Forest. Some come looking for the cocaine, like drug dealer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), his kingpin boss Syd White (Ray Liotta, in one of his final roles), and Syd’s estranged, recently widowed son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), dragged back into the family business against his will. Others, like single mom Sari (Keri Russell), happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time by pure coincidence — in this case, tracking down her 13-year-old daughter Dee-Dee (Brooklynn Prince), playing hooky from school to “paint the waterfall.” That is, not like painting a waterfall on a canvas a la Bob Ross, but hiking to a waterfall in the forest armed with a bunch of paints. This concept is presented in the film as if it’s some kind of common knowledge childhood activity; maybe I was deprived as a child and am only discovering it now, but how “waterfall painting” is supposed to work I have yet to puzzle out. But I digress.
Anyway, point is — some come looking for the missing cocaine. None come looking for the bear. Everyone crosses paths with both. A fair few do not survive. Last month, I wrote of the Gerard Butler-starring Plane as a film for the id. Cocaine Bear is a graduate of the same school of entertainment, but where Plane is, let’s say somewhere around the 25th percentile, Cocaine Bear graduated magna cum laude — it’s not perfect, but it’s still pretty near the top of this particular class.
There are flaws – particularly towards the back half things can get a little repetitive, although at a relatively trim 95 minutes the film does not overstay its welcome. Some of the character arcs among the ensemble cast are weaker than others. A junior police officer named Reba (Ayoola Smart) for instance feels a bit like an idea not quite fully realized, and harried mother Sari’s character is more of a wet blanket than feels fully necessary.
At its core, Cocaine Bear is actually a pretty lean, well-structured standard Hollywood formulation. While effective overall, a lot of the film’s best moments come when it allows itself to be a bit more esoteric. For instance, a scene where a character delivers the pearl of wisdom, “lizards are good listeners, but people, people are good at hearing.” It only makes slightly more sense in context, and is all the better for that.
While Cocaine Bear is Banks’ third full-length feature as a director, it is her first that is not part of an existing franchise and presents Banks as arguably one of the more intriguing actress-director hyphenates that has come on the scene in the last decade or so. While many such talents wearing multiple hats seem to prefer staying more in the indie realm — often for those still actively acting or who also write in order to make passion projects where they fill some combination of all these roles — Banks thus far has helmed projects that are consistently unabashedly mainstream entertainment. And she’s truly good at it. The comedic timing is solid. It is well shot, with consistent efforts towards some stylistic flair. Not everything that is tried works as well, but a swing and a miss is still better than blandly boring.
Cocaine Bear is a crowd-pleaser, but it’s definitely not for all crowds. It is a film about a bear that does a massive amount of cocaine and goes on a murder rampage. No layered metaphor, no poignant message. It is here for a good time, not a long time — an entertaining viewing experience, especially with a crowd, but not the kind of movie you’re going to still be thinking back on years down the line. And that’s absolutely fine. Cocaine Bear is the kind of movie that knows exactly what it is, does that well, and has no pretenses about being anything else. It literally opens with an epigraph from Wikipedia. There are far too many films out there not half so clever as they think they are; give me a silly movie that’s a fair bit smarter than it acts instead any day.
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters.
Image sources (in order of posting): Pat Redmond, Universal Pictures
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