Look. You’re either going to watch or not watch Cocaine Bear simply because of the title. Much like Snakes on a Plane or Sharknado before it, what it says on the tin is exactly what you’ll get: A black bear goes on a coke-fueled rampage. What the title doesn’t tell you is this 95-minute late-night sketch works wonders, walking a marvelous line between real life and wink-and-a-grin over-exaggeration, equally playing its comedic and horror scenes absolutely straight.
It’s as if a “Saturday Night Live” staging was produced without knowing it was supposed to make people laugh, if playing to a crowd and mugging for laughter wasn’t part of letting the audience in on the joke. But director Elizabeth Banks also knows exactly when to let some yards off the chain and go for broke, which results in Cocaine Bear being a film you’re glad to have seen. Not for the dialogue or the performances – both of which are no slouch – but because you have to admit that it’s exactly what was promised, and you can’t help but smile at its smart-but-dumb audacity.
The true story of the “Cocaine Bear” (a.k.a. “Pablo Escobear”) is a little more simple than the (hopefully) fictitious events padding our runtime. A black bear got hold of smuggled cocaine dropped into a National Park and ingested it until it died. Now, the film asks (as we must have): What happened to it in between when it got its first whiff and waking up in the Great Beyond? Jimmy Warden’s madcap script postulates an unfortunate crossing of paths between a mother looking for her child and her friend, a just-married pair of hitchhikers, a trio of hooligans, the police, the recipient drug runners trying to recover their stash… and a pair of National Park staff members.
How their lives all intertwine is the stuff of head-shaking legend, but not entirely out of the realm of the real. It seems entirely plausible that these people would all converge in the same area at just the right time for these events to kick off, but it also seems straight out of late-night comedy – the sort of piling disaster upon disaster thing played out over several sketches. This is why the under-exaggeration of this film works, as opposed to Snakes on a Plane’s parody of humanity. It’s not performed or shot in any kind of Paul Thomas Anderson, larger-than-life manner; it’s all done with the normalcy of being just another day in America (well, Ireland standing in for America).
For instance, we expect the recently-widowed Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to be a drunken, crying mess. However, his character is quickly subverted to being the cool-headed smart one, as opposed to his partner Daveed (O’Shea Jackson) being the typical guy in control but hindered by a knife wound in his back. Even their boss Syd (Ray Liotta, in one of his final performances) looks like a greasy drug kingpin, but he doesn’t act like one – instead, he’s just as panicked as the rest of them are.
Harried mother Sari (Keri Russell) has just arrived home from the night shift to find her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Dee Dee’s friend Henry (Christian Convery) have ditched school and are wandering the forest. But she’s not some stereotype; she’s a genuine single mom with regrets that she can’t spend more time with her kid. She’s smart and a smartass, just like the daughter she’s raising, unlike the images of these kinds of standard tropes in our minds.
Their run-ins with the bear – and those of the other participants – are highlighted with slasher film-esque gore and fright. Again, we’re talking late-night shenanigans played completely straight. We see disembowelments, beheadings, maulings, and other disfigurements that would intentionally be played with rubber props and enlarged for maximum comedy. But it’s not over-the-top gore for gore’s sake, with Banks finessing the divide between the two. We laugh as we realize the ludicrousness of the gory situation, which wisely remains in our sights long enough to make us recoil from the frighteningly realistic visuals.
This deft touch is why you’ll be happy you saw Cocaine Bear. You’ll smile about the absolute lunacy of it all and how far it went to give you something to laugh or be scared about. But eventually, you’ll smile about how down-to-earth this out-there story pulled one over on you by taking the perception of its one-note joke and delivering a symphony of them without being overt. The respect with which Elizabeth Banks handles this material is why Cocaine Bear is a fun comedy-horror that delivers on every promise, and then some.
Nice review! Mr.Cannon would be proud.
Thanks for reading, Sam! All the best to you and your family.