Review: Elizabeth Banks' 'Cocaine Bear' Delivers What it Promises
by Manuel São Bento
February 23, 2023
There are several factors that influence a viewer's decision to go to the theater or press "play" on a streaming service to watch a recent movie. Nowadays, it's extremely rare to see an audience exclusively persuaded by a mere premise – Cocaine Bear may be one of those uncommon gems. The title doesn't lie in the slightest: Jimmy Warden's script is inspired by a (very short) true story transformed into a kind of animal slasher wrapped in a dark comedy environment. Actress / filmmaker Elizabeth Banks ventures into directing for the third time (following Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie's Angels), but can she handle such a crazy premise?
I believe in the theory that the main goal of any film should be to deliver exactly the type of entertainment it's selling. If Cocaine Bear is about a bear who becomes addicted to cocaine and goes on a never-ending killing spree, as a viewer, I want to watch precisely that. The marketing campaign was so vast and persistent that it would be difficult to arrive at the opening week without ever having heard of this movie. Still, the truth is that Universal Pictures didn't mislead anyone: everything that they advertised and promised for months is fulfilled without any restrictions.
Banks' Cocaine Bear is one of the purest definitions of "dumb fun". For those unfamiliar with the original story on which the film is inspired: in 1985, two drug dealers were forced to dump 40 bags of cocaine trying to escape on a plane with more weight than it could carry. A black bear found one of these bags, ingested about 35kg of the drug and, obviously, died of an overdose. Warden's script picks up this story and extends it in a purposely absurd manner by asking a simple question: "what if the bear became addicted to cocaine?"
Banks didn't impress at all with her first two movies as a director, however, she deserves praise for Cocaine Bear. Much of that praise goes to her ability to realize that this story was not meant to be a memorable, thematically rich masterpiece. The filmmaker never tries to make her movie more than what it really is: pure popcorn entertainment that requires immense suspension of disbelief. Viewers won't pay a ticket to see human characters interact with each other, but instead to watch an out-of-control bear disembowel them.
Therefore, the fact that there's no character arc with essential lessons or a narrative with sensitive, profound themes doesn't have much impact on the enjoyment of the flick. That said, Banks and Warden could, in fact, have made a greater effort to avoid the cheap plasticity of the vast majority of their characters in this animal slasher comedy. Cocaine Bear literally uses many of them as "cannon fodder", which seems to have affected some actors who fall short in their performances.
Keri Russell stars as Sari, a mother whose daughter and respective friend are hiding from the bear. The actress suffers a bit from the balance between having to mix heavy feelings – her daughter is in real danger – and the more comical atmosphere of the whole situation. Her seriousness contrasts with the lightness of most of the other performances, but fortunately it never really gets to an alarming point. O'Shea Jackson Jr. stands out, as do young actors Christian Convery – who's hilarious – and Brooklynn Prince. Also a word of appreciation and respect for the last role from the late Ray Liotta.
Personally, I consider the unrealistic, silly atmosphere that permeates the entire movie to be vital to its success. From the amount of gore and blood present in the killings to their violent, brutal creativity, I can't imagine viewers leaving disappointed with a movie that delivers on exactly what it promises. The bear's visual effects are more competent than I anticipated, with only a couple of moments where the animal would need a slight touch-up – after all, the biggest chunk of the budget went to visual effects masters Wētā FX.
In summary, it's very easy to deduce whether Cocaine Bear is for you or not based simply on the premise to begin with. If you don't have issues with suspending your disbelief and accepting the absurdity of the concept, this film has every reason to entertain you for practically an hour and a half – despite the first act wasting too much time with insignificant characters. If these complex mixtures of serious situations and ridiculous comedy don't sit well with your genre preference, then maybe you're better off staying home.
Elizabeth Banks' Cocaine Bear delivers precisely what it should: an absolutely insane bear wreaking bloody, gory, visually shocking havoc while committing unimaginably ridiculous mayhem. It's a comedy movie that is purposefully absurd, loaded with pure popcorn entertainment where characters, themes, or even logical sense are irrelevant. When there's a cocaine-addicted bear on the loose, nothing else matters but putting the animal front and center on big screen for as long as possible. A perfect viewing for fans of silly giggles.
Manuel's Rating: B-
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