Whoever greenlit Cocaine Bear at Universal probably thought its title alone would get butts in seats.
In this day and age when the general public has the attention span of a squirrel, a good movie title goes a long way. From the simple single word of Nope, It or Men to bundled stupidity of Jackass Forever or any of the Alvin & the Chipmunks sequels, sometimes you need a couple of words that make someone do a double-take at the theater marquee and get them to say, “That’s a real movie?” Then the gears start turning with all the ideas stemming from that title. Could there actually be a tornado made of sharks in Sharknado? What exactly is making someone yell Run Lola Run? Why would you name a horror movie after a boring tool like a Saw? However many wild ideas to be thrown out from an eye-catching title, it only gets you so far.
On the off chance that someone would think that this title was a trick or some kind of complex in-joke, the studio (and executive producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of The Lego Movie fame) had an ace up its sleeve: it’s a true story!..kind-of. In September 1985, a drug smuggler was found dead in Knoxville, Tennessee after falling from an auto-piloted plane he was using to smuggle bags of cocaine he dropped throughout the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. While some of the coke packages were eventually recovered, about 34 kilograms of the snow was found in the stomach of a dead black bear months later. That leads to one conclusion: a bear did cocaine!
So the movie writes itself, right? Not entirely, because the script from Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen) is overstuffed with characters and yet still underdeveloped. We’ve got single mom Sari (Keri Russell) trying to find her missing teenage daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and said kid’s aloof friend (Christian Convery) with the help of a horny Park Ranger (Margo Martindale) and goofy inspector (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). There’s also moping gangster Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his buddy Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) trying to recover the missing cocaine for Eddie’s drug dealing dad (Ray Liotta). And then there’s the grizzled old detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) trying to solve the mystery of the airdropped drugs. All of these barely connected characters must eventually cross paths with the coked-out Fozzie and try to survive the night.
With a title and premise as wacky as Cocaine Bear, you’d think the movie would either go hog wild from the first frame or play everything else straight with the blitzed Baloo being the wild card element to keep an audience on its toes. Sadly, Warden’s script and the direction from Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels, Pitch Perfect 2) try to have it both ways, which leads to a movie that’s more boring than bonkers. The character subplots are lazily thrown together and don’t bring any heart or excitement to the movie because, again, Winnie the Pooh on the white stuff is weird enough to hold attention. One could see Cocaine Bear as some kind of horror comedy, but there aren’t enough scares to make the bear seem threatening (especially when it can’t stop ripping off Jaws, Friday the 13th and Jurassic Park,) and the comedy teases ridiculousness but never gets into gear. There are some inspired moments when Banks lets chaos unfurl, particularly when Martindale and some EMTs try to escape the bear to the tune of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Then she cuts back to Russell trying to find her daughter and all the momentum stops dead. There are baby bears covered in Satan’s snow at the climax, and even that’s underwhelming!
That lack of energy in the script is sadly emphasized by a rather talented cast. Russell, Ehrenreich, Jackson Jr. and the late great Liotta all look so bored hobbling through the downplayed absurdity of Cocaine Bear. Martindale and Ferguson bring some off-beat energy to their bit parts, but it’s less the awkward quirk of the Coen Brothers vibe they’re going for and more like a stalling sketch from Kids in the Hall (fitting since Ferguson’s makeup makes him look like one of the troupe members in a cheap wig). Only Whitlock Jr. retains his eternal cool by mixing the hard-boiled stance of Clay Davis on The Wire with the dorky kindness he showed in Cedar Rapids. Then there’s the titular star, made entirely of CGI that’s distracting at first but acceptable by the movie’s end given the cartoonish things it does (including a Popeye-esque hulk-up but with blow instead of spinach.)
Cocaine Bear is another sad case of a movie that’s not as fun as it thinks it is. Even with a talented cast of versatile B-players, it’s trying to coast by on a wacky premise instead of seeing how far it can take its absurdity. It’s got too many boring characters blocking the audience from seeing its titular beast barrel through victims in what could have been a goofy riff on 80s slasher movies or survival epics (think The Revenant if it was made by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay at their peak.) It’s possible Banks and Warden didn’t want to overthink such a simple concept and just let the unbelievable scenarios speak for themselves, but c’mon now. It’s called Cocaine Bear, how often do you get a jumping-off point as good as that? Read between the (white) lines!
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer below.
Featured image courtesy of Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures
Cocaine Bear - 4/10