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Cocaine Bear Review: Makes A Meme Of Itself

EDITORS' RATING : 5.5 / 10
  • Delightfully chaotic
  • Occasionally hilarious
  • It's about a bear doing cocaine
  • Comedy is largely hit or miss
  • Third act tone shift doesn't work
  • Needlessly complex given the premise

Few modern films stretch the limits of "based on a true story" with the winking verve Elizabeth Banks' new film "Cocaine Bear" employs. Sure, the factual events the film is loosely based upon are themselves pretty wacky, but the fantastical horror-comedy wrung from its premise exists in its own sphere of chaos and whimsy. Whether or not it succeeds on its merits will depend on just how humorous the title and concept are to you at the outset, but within this zeitgeist-y experiment, there's enough on display for most people to have at least some semblance of a good time.

Elizabeth Banks, based solely on the decent "Pitch Perfect" films and her atrocious "Charlie's Angels" reboot, would not be anyone's first choice to tackle a film this strange and entangled. But it's clear Jimmy Warden's script has inspired her to stretch beyond expectations to experiment with what she's capable of behind the camera. She's assembled a stacked cast, curated a specific vibe, and put together what is likely to be a sleeper hit for an otherwise dreary box office season. 

But as commendable as the efforts are, the film is not without its drawbacks. "Cocaine Bear" is a movie whose commitment to the bit at times proves a little too self-aware to fully jibe with some of the more sentimental elements that arrive in the final act.

Into the woods

"Cocaine Bear" begins with a pretty gonzo opening sequence showing how Andrew C. Thornton II (a terrific cameo from Matthew Rhys) fell from a plane over Kentucky while smuggling kilos of cocaine. From there the film immediately focuses on a dual-pronged process of establishing tone and building its ensemble cast.

For the former, Banks employs humorous "just say no" ads from the Nancy Reagan era of the war on drugs, tethered to period-appropriate needle drops, casual anachronistic in-jokes, and generally creating an aesthetic somewhere between overlong Funny or Die videos and earnest, VHS-era camp-bound slasher fare. The viewer needs to know they are watching a movie that, at least at the outset, doesn't take itself particularly seriously. 

But with the latter, the film must introduce a sprawling, interconnected cast each with their own subplots converging in the park in Chattanooga where the Cocaine Bear resides. Sari (Keri Russell) is a single mother and a nurse whose daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) skip school and get lost in the park, so she has to go looking for them. Syd (Ray Liotta in one of his last on-screen roles), is a drug kingpin who needs to retrieve the missing cocaine, so he sends Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) and his own son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), a grieving widower who wants out of the drug business, to go looking for it. There's also Margot Martindale as a thirsty park ranger, Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a detective, and a gang known only as the Duchamp Boys, all circling around this ridiculous nexus of circumstance and absurdity.

It's a lot of set-up for punchlines that don't always land. Though ostensibly a comedy, the actual jokes and humor are of such a niche variety that they often just feel like throwaway asides and the sort of hyper-specific background bits that exist solely to pop the comedy writers who come up with them. Also, the time it takes to effectively weave this intricate web of supporting players makes the short 95-minute runtime feel longer than it ought to. 

Against all odds, however, it's worth it for the middle section where there's enough red meat in the room to unleash the Cocaine Bear and the credulity-stretching misdirections and farcical contrivances her very presence inspires. It's here that Banks comes alive, channeling her inner Sam Raimi to transcend some of the try-hard theatrics of the comedy at play to indulge in the film's horrific monster movie aspect. Even though the real bear the film is based on just got high, overdosed, and died, the creatives behind the film and the audience in their seats are coming together because they want to see a bear, under the influence of narcotics, wreak bloody havoc. 

When the film gets into that monster movie groove and the Cocaine Bear goes full throttle, it's a genuine blast. "Cocaine Bear," at its best is the kind of popcorn diversion the theatrical marketplace needs a lot more of. Too bad it's not always at its best.

Bear season

Once the film's best bits have been dispensed with (namely the gazebo Mexican standoff between Whitlock Jr.'s detective and Daveed, the ambulance chase, and a particularly fruitless climb up a tree for an intoxicated park inspector), "Cocaine Bear" makes the same mistake a lot of movies playing in this darkly comic space tend to make. They try to wring real pathos from something we've all already agreed to accept as goofy artifice. 

On the upside, there is some genuine heart in the film, especially with its ongoing themes about parents and their children. Those bits of sincerity give performers like Russell and Ehrenreich some meat to chew on through long passages of screen time that could have just as easily been populated with less talented performers. But by the third act, the film begins to fall apart, as the tone shifts from near parody levels of kookiness to an exhausted kind of drama. 

An argument could be made that this is a purposeful part of the movie's magic trick, that Banks and Warden wanted the film itself to mirror the soul harrowing come down after the best of coke highs, but in practice, it's just frustrating on all accounts. The story takes a dip into turgidity at the same time its plot turns to nightfall, and the film's otherwise sharp visuals devolve into a meandering mess. Liotta, within this morass, does some strong work, but it's not in line with the tone the movie has so firmly established. There are a few interesting bits that get a little Amblin Entertainment with their "Goonies"-esque aspirational attitude, but this isn't a film that can believably shift tones in this manner.

Give Banks credit for steering the runaway plane so deftly through its second act, careening from high point to high point, and dodging all manner of narrative turbulence. But she — and the script she's working from — just don't have the range necessary to stick this landing. "Cocaine Bear" ends too saccharine, too concerned with trying to say something encouraging in a movie otherwise unconcerned with such aims. That it ends so clearly baiting for a sequel at least means someone in the near future, Banks or otherwise, will get another crack at the material.

Here's hoping whoever does it leans in the right direction and sticks to the onslaught of meme-ready happenstance and doesn't get caught up trying to turn their very good one-note concept into a mediocre, overly ambitious multidimensional mess.

"Cocaine Bear" hits theaters on Friday, February 24.