Director: Elizabeth Banks
Stars: Ray Liotta, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Brooklynn Prince
Better known overall for her diverse work in front of the camera, Elizabeth Banks has also proven herself a capable hand behind it, shepherding us a couple of readily enjoyable if workmanlike franchise entries (Pitch Perfect 2, the underrated Charlie’s Angels reboot with Kristen Stewart). With Cocaine Bear she takes a big, crazy swing at some original material; an abundantly exaggerated account of one bear’s encounter with a stray duffel bag full of the white stuff. The inspiring event – back in 1985 – is fairly scant on details (a bear was found dead having ingested cocaine; no humans died). Banks’ film, then, mines the concept for its comedic potential, in the process reminding us how oddly rare new Hollywood comedies are at the cinema these days. And how rusty the studios are at making them.
It is with a heavy heart that I must report that Cocaine Bear is fairly terrible. Certainly the least entertaining of Banks’ directorial efforts to date. It’s risibly gaudy trailer pitches it as a zany comedy geared toward a teen crowd. Presumably the same teen crowd expected to turn up for Nicolas Cage’s meme-ready Dracula pic Renfield. Both are being marketed hard on their outrageous viral potential. It’s a relief to say that this try-hard spirit is only fleetingly apparent in Banks’ film (mainly in the bits that made it into said trailer). The whole is something of a two-headed beast, flitting between gory mayhem and outright tedium. In this it has much more in common with the spottily goofy, no-budget Jaws clones of the late ’70s than previously expected. Movies like Grizzly or Alligator. There’s an abundance of gooey severed limbs flying around amid a lot of humdrum action.
The best reason to go by far is to catch up with young Brooklynn Prince, better known for carrying the heart and soul of Sean Baker’s celebrated 2017 flick The Florida Project. Here she is 13-year-old Dee Dee, playing hooky from school with her pal Henry (the also-fun Christian Convery) on the fateful day that Cocaine Bear (literally what everyone calls it) runs amok in the Georgia forest. Banks’ film strikes gasp-worthy gold early on when these two cherishable delinquents stumble across one of the many brown bricks that have tumbled from the sky across hundreds of acres of national parkland.
Prince still shows bags of potential to light up the screen, but Cocaine Bear has Dee Dee abducted by said bear (in a story element that defies the tighter geography of the remainder of the picture), so the child stars are immediately relegated to the margins. While Dee Dee’s shell-suited mother Sari (Keri Russell; lead in name only) looks for her missing daughter, a thuggish duo is dispatched by the product’s owner Syd (Ray Liotta) to retrieve the fallen cargo. On the trail are Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), neither of whom muster much charisma, either when sparring off of one other or when left to their own devices. Ehrenreich’s Eddie has a sketchily drawn backstory of recent grief that is banal beyond belief. Elsewhere you’ll find Isiah Whitlock, Jr.’s bumbling police official Bob, saddled with an uninspired affectation for toy dogs, whose trademark “shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit” is cut from the final picture.
Fairing better is Bojack Horseman fave Margo Martindale, here in the flesh as an amorous park ranger who causes as much incidental carnage and catastrophe as the bear she’s frequently fleeing from. She has a knack for finding the slapstick centre of any sequence she stumbles into, so it’s a shame that this ongoing potential is left to fizzle out mid-picture.
This is one of Liotta’s last onscreen appearances. A strange and bittersweet sensation, rendered more-so by his phoned-in work as Syd. Indeed, the more that Cocaine Bear focuses in on his gruff attempts to recover the scattered product, the more tedious it becomes. Banks’ direction of action is also particularly flat, and the film culminates on a poorly lit and regrettably staged line-up of characters on a waterfall ledge in near darkness.
With characters spread out and crossing paths fleetingly – if at all – there’s a sense of stuttering anecdotal sprawl to the picture. The edit struggles to keep it all co-ordinated. In one mystifying choice, we’re hastily reminded through flashback of a sequence that didn’t even make it into the movie. An awkwardly clipped chronological guffaw.
Add to this the not-quite-ready-yet uncanny valley feeling generated by the titular CG menace, and Banks’ production cleaves closer to the shonkiness of those ’70s pictures than even she’d probably have liked. It has it’s moments, it genuinely does. But these are almost exclusively relegated to the material with the kids or Martindale’s ill-fated ranger. As a silly comedy it is slack and loose. Patchy. As a character piece it is truly lost in the woods. Openly keening for word-of-mouth buzz, Cocaine Bear is fleetingly capable of the outrageous, but mostly feels like a recurring bit from a sketch show that gets cut in the second season for something better.