Cult classics aren’t made so much as they are found. And the filmmakers behind them usually aren’t aware they’re going over the top. They would probably be mystified if they found us jokingly quoting their earnest dialogue or cracking up as we watch certain scenes over and over again.
With Cocaine Bear, director Elizabeth Banks knows she has the stuff cult films are made of, and she delivers it with glee, warmly welcoming us to laugh along. It’s ultimately too straightforward and wholesome to potentially reach cult film status, but it’s a fun one-time watch.
Loosely based on a true incident in 1985, the film fills in the gaps between when drug smugglers dropped a plane-load of cocaine in the Georgia wilderness and a black bear turned up overdosed on happy trails.
Like the bear before it snorts its first line, the film lumbers through its first act, blandly introducing an ensemble of characters. There’s Sari (Keri Russell), a nurse / single mother; her spunky daughter, Deirdre (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince); Deirdre’s scaredy-cat friend, Henry (Christian Convery); weary drug dealers Daveed and Eddie (O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich, respectively); their boss, Syd (Ray Liotta in one of his final performances before his death); and two authority figures, a park ranger (Margo Martindale) and a detective (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.).
The whole cast seems to be having a blast, but Ehrenreich is the true standout, bringing sardonic wit to the pulpy proceedings. And it’s bittersweet watching Liotta giving a final nod to GoodFellas with his portrayal of paranoia and desperation amid a search for coke.
While this may seem like a random assortment of characters, Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden seamlessly tie them together through the theme of primal family protection. While Sari goes into mama-bear mode trying to rescue her daughter cub from the titular beast, the drug dealers have to wrestle with the more modern dilemma of saving their own loved ones from deadly, greedy criminals.
What’s most impressive is how Banks and Warden fit this heartfelt family drama amid outlandish chaos and carnage. The computer-generated bear doesn’t look great, but boy, is it fun to watch wreak havoc. From snorting coke off a severed leg to chasing down an ambulance, the film doesn’t hold back on its titular terror.
Said title and the premise immediately bring a smile to your face, Cocaine Bear makes for a good night at the movies, but none of it is quite crazy enough to warrant a rewatch. And it’s not as cathartic as Banks imagines. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Banks said: “I made this movie during the pandemic, when everything seemed scary and traumatic. I felt like there was no greater metaphor for the chaos all around us than a bear who is high on cocaine. So if this helps people process the last two and a half years of their life, I’ll feel great about that.”
This film’s absurdity would’ve felt more bitingly timely in, say, 2016 or 2020. But as it stands now, it’s a silly and serviceable little romp with a heart, and sometimes that’s all we really need from a movie.