Cocaine Bear has the potency of talcum powder
By Jonas Schwartz-Owen
If you're going to go on the stage of the Academy Awards with one of the largest TV audiences of the year and promote your film, as Elizabeth Banks did this year, it had better be more intriguing than Cocaine Bear. Even with a stellar cast and an insane premise, the film sputters from unimaginative writing by Jimmy Warden and sluggish direction by Banks.
"Based" on a true story, Cocaine Bear starts off with a quick cameo performance and millions of cocaine crashing to the ground in a Tennessee national park. By time we meet the title character, she's already baked and ready to kill, which she does quickly and painfully. The fresh meat arrives like a Hometown Buffet, including mobsters, wayward children, amateur crooks, and useless authority. A single mother (Keri Russell, The Americans) searches for her daughter and friend in the vast woods and becomes the villain's drug-free doppelganger, once the script finally sets them both up as mother bears protecting their cubs.
If you’re going to make a movie about a bear hooked on cocaine, you better go balls to the wall — and Cocaine Bear fails going insane. Imagine what Edgar Wright would do with the same premise. Writer Warden connects dots to get to the convenient end, instead of pushing his imagination.
Banks lays on plenty of gore and ups the tension by involving children, but as she lets the story bandy about, she loses sight of the film's intentions. I'm not saying we didn't need a cocaine eating killer bear movie right now, but the director should have a reason why this story had to be told — other than a paycheck and a résumé genre-builder.
Russell is excellent as always in the main role. She brings earthiness and stakes just from her performance. Her Americans co-star, Emmy winner Margo Martindale, is hilariously wacko as a ranger with the hots for Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson. In his final role, Ray Liotta is sadistically funny as the mobster whose cocaine has become the picnic lunch for our titular titan. Even in a weaker film, Liotta is a volcanic presence, and his talent will be sorely missed on the big screen.
The effects team do a good job of making the bears believable and the deaths look painful. Costume designer Tiziana Corvisieri and composer Mark Mothersbaugh (formerly of the ’80s New Wave band Devo) set the mood for the bad fashion and quirky alternative of 1980s culture.
Comedy-horror is such a difficult balance. So many slide into laugh-free schlock. Cocaine Bear is grisly enough to be horror, but not witty enough to be a comedy, so it just lays there — much like the film's multiple gutted victims.