‘Cocaine Bear’ Review: The Marketing Is Better Than The Movie

The comedy lacks wit and bite, though things jolt to life when this meme-friendly monster movie lays the gore on thick.

Keri Russell as Sari in ‘Cocaine Bear.’ Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures

Reading #CocaineBear jokes on Twitter is measurably more fun than actually seeing Elizabeth Banks’ new meme-ified monster movie, a film that arrives in theaters this week on the jittery buzz of a viral marketing campaign, but without a single cinematic idea or ambition with which to back it up.

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COCAINE BEAR ★1.5 (1.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks
Written by: Jimmy Warden
Starring: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Brooklynn Prince, Christian Convery, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta
Running time: 96 mins.

The extent to which the film fails to deliver on the B-movie promise of its title is staggering and, given the high-quality cast and crafts people stooping to concur on behalf of the film’s high-wire and harebrained premise, it is borderline tragic.  

The primary sin of Cocaine Bear—overseen by the pop culture mix master producing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie)—is its complete inability to balance the film’s twin directives of broad comedy and shock horror. The comedy, all of it lacking wit and most of it sans bite, is offered up in the flatly presentational manner of a sitcom or a lesser Judd Apatow outing, a style that never upshifts to meet the occasion when the stalkings of a deranged ursine demand more dynamic use of light, shadow, and camera movement.   

The film—a fictionalized re-accounting of a 1985 story involving traffickers dumping 75 pounds of cocaine from a plane and a bear residing in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest ingesting it and swiftly croaking—doesn’t have a strong enough point-of-view or sense of purpose to live up to its promising logline.


What Banks’ third directorial effort does have is an impressive cast culled from across peak television, independent film, and viral videos. (Comedian Scott Seiss, best known for his truth-telling Ikea retail worker in a series of TikToks, shows up as doomed EMT.)

Keri Russell, as a single mom and nurse whose teenage daughter (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince) is taken captive by the title character, does her best to drum up a mama bear fierceness equal to her woodland counterpart, but with so little to play against it’s as if she’s working in a vacuum. She’s joined by her Americans co-stars Margo Martingale, badly used as an ornery park ranger, and Matthew Rhys, who cameos as an unfortunate coke dealer whose parachute fails to deploy. Meanwhile, Alden Ehrenreich, whose forthcoming hedge fund thriller Fair Play was the talk of this year’s Sundance, brings a strange and ill-fitting pathos to his grieving drug dealer reluctantly forced to retrieve the mislaid packages of Florida snow.    

Surprisingly, the few moments where the decidedly R-rated movie (forget cigarettes, Cocaine Bear shows us kids ingesting large gulps of Columbian nose candy as if it were Fun Dip) jolts to life when it lays the gore thick. The film’s gloppy entrails and severed body parts provide at least the kind of visual shock and payoff that is palpably absent in its half-hearted attempts at suspenseful horror.     

But what stands out most, unfortunately, is just how much fun the makers seem not to be having. This is most noticeable in the uninspired, synth-fried score of Mark Mothersbaugh; it carries none of the knowing irony and piquant rhythms of his other film work, including The Lego Movie.

It is as if the Devo genius is simply going through the motions. In that way, Mothersbaugh’s contributions are not that different from the film itself. Cocaine Bear pretends to celebrate all that is vital and unruly in schlock cinema, yet by not having the passion or vision to back up its slam-bang title, it instead engages in the most tiresome, marketing-first habits of corporate film making.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Cocaine Bear’ Review: The Marketing Is Better Than The Movie