‘Cocaine Bear’ review – A half-baked dark comedy

It’s no surprise that Cocaine Bear was turned into a movie. The real-life story of “Pablo Eskobear” is hard to pass up, although Elizabeth Banks and Jimmy Warden don’t exactly deliver the facts in their adaptation. Instead, the director and writer reimagine the events leading up to the black bear who overdosed on coke in 1985. They even change the outcome. However, the problem, or, to be more accurate, the problems with Cocaine Bear have nothing to do with artistic license.

This movie gets two things right as far as backstory goes: in 1985, narcotics officer turned drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II dumped a shipment of cocaine from a plane over a part of Georgia, and a bear ended up ingesting some of that misplaced blow. Everything else after that point is pure fiction. But unless someone’s a real stickler for verity, this movie’s “fill in the gaps” strategy is preferable to a straight report of what befell a hapless bear in the Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest. Now, going off-script from the truth should have invited more fun, yet ultimately there are too many times where the fictional parts can’t match the energy of its fuzzy, coked-out lead.

Cocaine Bear has several middling subplots playing out before they ultimately converge. Foremost is the haphazard hunt for Thornton’s lost goods; a detective from Tennessee (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) crosses paths with the son of a St. Louis kingpin (Alden Ehrenreich) and his comrade in adversity (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) when looking for snow in the Georgian national park. Making matters more hectic is a local mother (Keri Russell) searching for her missing daughter (Brooklynn Prince) in the woods. Also along for the ride are the resident park ranger (Margo Martindale) and her crush, two unlucky Scandinavian hikers, a pair of panicked paramedics, a plot-armored boy, and a trio of young delinquents. Unlike a certain drug-seeking bear, this movie is stuffed. The ensemble cast does the best with what they’re given. One-notedness notwithstanding, several of the supporting characters — like Martindale, as always — end up leaving more of an impression than the actual leads.

Audiences will flock to Cocaine Bear because the prospect of a heavily drugged ursine dismembering people left and right sounds like a good time. Does it deliver? Yes and no. The namesake goes on a long rampage, chewing on a surprising amount of characters who just so happen to be in her way (and in the park) that day. There are attempts at memorable set pieces; the most successful is the ambulance one, which honestly could have lasted longer. Other scenes don’t have nearly the same amount of life and payoff, unfortunately. The standoff between the cop and the kingpin’s minions is the start of the movie’s comedown, and by the end, there is no gas left in the tank.

Cocaine Bear makes little attempt to be a movie; it’s more a bunch of random scenes strung together with the hope of making people laugh and guffaw. That approach has worked beautifully for other dark comedies, but here it’s weighed down by so-so humor and ineffectual writing. No one’s asking for compelling human plots in something called Cocaine Bear. There’s just nothing too engaging about this movie other than its wasted protagonist, who too often gets sidelined when she’s clearly the key ingredient.

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