Elizabeth Banks does fun work with the semi-historical drugged-out Ursus americanus but truly shines with the low-key crime dramedy side of the story.
First, some music to set the mood, with thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson. If it’s 1985 and you’ve got something to do—say, going for a hike, cutting class to paint a waterfall with a pal, or retrieving a shipment of cocaine that your terrifying crime lord dad’s good-for-nothing pilot dumped before getting himself killed— and it’s a quiet day out, then Georgia’s Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest would seem like the place to go. The trees are tall, the grass is green, and the Cocaine Bear is on a murderous rampage.
Director Elizabeth Banks takes the eye-catching skeleton of an actual incident and builds on it into an amiably gory animal attack horror dramedy. In real life, a smuggler dumped a massive load of cocaine into Chattahoochee before attempting to ditch his Cessna and died when his chute failed to open. Several months later, a black bear was found dead, having gotten into the abandoned coke and subsequently overdosed.
Banks and writer Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter and its sequel, Killer Queen) opt for something zanier than a straight retelling. Cocaine Bear is an amiable, ensemble-based comedy of errors (in some cases a clawmedy of terrors) that shines when it deploys the title ursine as a chaos agent in a set of disconnected tales that are gradually pulled together by the bear’s never-ending quest for powder. Of these, Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.‘s Elmore Leonard-esque low-key crime caper is far and away the best. And while Cocaine Bear‘s disparate threads don’t all totally land, there’s not a bad performance among their players.
Ehrenreich and Jackson’s chemistry is marvelous. Ehrenreich is Eddie, a grieving widower and Dad pulled back into mid-profile crime at the behest of his sleazeball crime boss dad Syd (the late, great Ray Liotta, enjoyably loathsome and put-upon). Jackson is Daveed, Syd’s go-to guy, and Eddie’s semi-estranged best friend. They care about each other dearly, but they’re very different men at very different places in their lives. The result is thorny, compelling banter that wavers between exasperation and affection, Ehrenreich’s messy grief, and Jackson’s deadpan determination to get their crummy job done.
Adding to that mix is the duo’s shared frustration over the other eccentric folks they run into in the course of their hunt—including a detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who’s as concerned with whether he can be a good Dog Dad to his newly adopted fluffball as he is hunting Syd down and three Awful Teens who believe themselves to be the baddest of the bad (Jackson disabuses them of this notion in a very fun fight scene that pits his martial skill against the Awful Teens’ ego high). And the Cocaine Bear (motion captured by Allan Henry)—powerful, maul-happy, and perpetually high-as-a-kite.
Aside from Ehrenreich and Jackson’s chemistry, it’s the dissonance between the theoretically sedate but high-stakes nature of their quest and the zonkery of Cocaine Bear that makes their segment of Cocaine Bear so successful. Banks proves herself skilled at both crime dramedy (If she ever wants to make an Elmore Leonard adaptation, I’m there) and animal attack comedy horror (Cocaine Bear‘s most morbid laughs are expertly interwoven with wince-inducing carnage). Still, her greatest directing accomplishment is navigating how the two collide.
Cocaine Bear simultaneously kills conflict (the stand-off with Whitlock’s detective can wait) and sparks it anew (even temporarily allied with Whitlock, Ehrenreich and Jackson are up against a fearless apex predator with a taste for violence). It’s a sharp tonal jump and one that Banks makes consummately. Indeed, the lack of a jump may explain why the other protagonists’ stories don’t land quite as strongly for me as Ehrenreich and Jackson’s does.
Don’t get me wrong—Keri Russell (as Sari, a nurse determined to save her kid [Brooklynn Prince] and her pal [Christian Convery] from Cocaine Bear) and Margo Martindale (as Liz, a park ranger who had hoped for romance only to swear bloody revenge on Cocaine Bear) are plugged in and having a ball. Martindale’s vengeful ranger may be the picture’s funniest performance overall (she definitely gets the best Cocaine Bear scene). But Russell and Martindale’s stories are directly tied to Cocaine Bear and consequently lack the oh-god-now-what spark that comes from Cocaine Bear barging into Ehrenreich and Jackson’s crime story.
As for the titular Bear, she’s at her best when barging in on the protagonists and ruining their days. Banks spins her around in those sequences like a 175-pound coked-up mace to great effect (including a marvelously morbid chase that demolishes a major set). On her own, her inherent comedy can run a bit thin. She’s a bear on cocaine. Pitted against folks who aren’t prepared for a bear on cocaine (and even those who are), she’s funny—even hysterical. On her own, she’s a bear. On cocaine. And that’s it.
Ehrenreich and Jackson are full-on fantastic. Banks directs darn well, from Jackson’s showdown with the awful teens to the many permutations of Human V. Bear to quieter moments, both comic and dramatic. While parts of the picture are a bit fuzzy, it’s a good, solid animal attack horror comedy with a very fine dramedy side in Ehrenreich and Jackson’s run. In other words, not only does Cocaine Bear not blow it, it’s rather a lot of fun.
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters.