What kind of audience would go see Cocaine Bear? Marijuana Humans. My crowd of Marijuana Humans was worked up into a downright ample frenzy. They were Marvel-level excited about a bear doing cocaine and then acting funny on account of the cocaine. Drugs are very funny to this group of Marijuana Humans, you can tell because they reeked of weed and acted very high and thought that was funny.
I knew we were in for it when the first Marijuana Humans stumbled into the theater, spilling all of their popcorn in the entry. Uh-oh, it will be one of those kinds of showings. Then a procession of further Marijuana Humans filtered in, all very loud and on their phones. A couple of them were creating a video for Social Content. Social Media Humans are the most dangerous kind of all. Apex Posters.
Much to my delight, the Marijuana Humans and Social Media Humans settled in for the trailers. A packed house, fairly rambunctious and ready to react strongly to literally anything that happened on the screen. What good fortune to finally see the trailer for my most anticipated film while in the theater. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, like Cocaine Bear, is a title-first proposition. Yeah, let’s go blow up some pipelines. I’m down. And so were the Marijuana Humans. The trailer was the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. Lots of hooting and hollering. I thought it was nice to be among kindred spirits but they simply didn’t stop laughing for a good ten minutes.
A lowly-looking Screen Gems-type movie with Mark Hamill in it called The Machine drew the same response. I thought, are we in a spot of trouble here? The Marijuana Humans are not only responding to the top-of-the-line cinema but just literally anything on the screen. A few more trailers played. Could have been anything. Doesn’t really matter. Yet, when the new Scream and Evil Dead movies played, they reacted in the right spaces, probably not as the filmmakers intended — more hooting and hollering — but they were reacting to two things I cared about. Good enough.
Then, something happened. A new Fast & Furious movie. The theater fell dead silent. Certain motion pictures require reverence. The next one broke the spell. It was a talking dog movie. More laughter than I’ve heard at any comedy in a few years. As the trailer ended, one of the Marijuana Humans exclaimed very loudly how good the talking dog movie looked. Even I had to laugh this time, he was more excited about the talking-dog movie than I have been for any movie in thirty years. Incredible.
The movie began. And the room shifted. Something strange began to happen. The theater took on a kind of somber seriousness. Pretty much right away the CG-looking Cocaine Bear got into some drugs. Nobody laughed. It almost hurt inside. This is what they were there for. We were moments away from talking dogs being the height of comedy cinema and we had used up all of our laughter on that. That talking dog picture did start to look good, I thought, as Cocaine Bear continued to do the one thing it says it’s going to do and nothing else.
I had misread the audience completely. They didn’t laugh hysterically through the film or hardly at all. They were here to have a good time and they had a good time in the previews. And they were right. The previews were the only entertaining thing that happened on the screen. Watching Cocaine Bear results in about the same outcome as watching nothing at all. I would recommend watching nothing first but, failing that, you might go watch Cocaine Bear. As title-first films go — that is, films that are their title and the title is also their logline — Cocaine Bear is, and it is nothing else, an efficient piece of marketing. It prepares an audience for a bear that is going to recreationally use cocaine, and then also makes good only on that idea and then does nothing else.
The film begins with a factoid with a punchline. The punchline was that the factoid was sourced from Wikipedia. Groans from the Marijuana Humans and from myself. From here, director Elizabeth Banks, who is simply cashing a check, tries to set some kind of tone. It lands on the wrong side of horror, wherein we’re unable to invest in any of the characters, situations, or context, and cannot seem to find enough grounding in any of the events to care about what is happening.
Based on a true story where a bear found a duffle bag of cocaine and died from eating it, the twist in this movie is that the bear eats cocaine and then acts in specific ways that are stereotypical of how hyped-up humans act when using cocaine. It also isn’t how most humans act when using cocaine. As a person in long-term recovery from every nameable substance, I can reflect back with honesty, that most of the time people who use a lot of cocaine have some initial heightened experiences and then disappear from their lives for a while. I also don’t think it’s a funny drug. The stereotypes we have about crack and cocaine are so often stereotypes against certain segments of society. I find it tragically unfunny. Placing these ideas on an animal, who does not purposefully use drugs and seek the same outcomes we do, is also not funny. It’s a cruel idea actually and the cruelty is played as a joke, but nobody is laughing.
So, the titular bear finds some cocaine and scarfs it down. Easy logline. It attacks some curious hikers. Fair. Some children find some of the cocaine and don’t really know what they’re doing. The film also thinks it is funny for the children to use cocaine since children do not usually use cocaine. It isn’t funny. They have no idea, really, what to do with it and shovel it into their mouths like spoonfuls of sugar. Nobody has had less of an idea of what drug use actually looks like since Damien Chazelle put out Babylon last year.
Further complications arise. Director Elizabeth Banks has trouble plotting all this, but several interested parties intersect in the woods. We have a couple of bros, one who is recovering from a recent breakup, and his drug-dealing friend. We have a cop who has adopted a sweet show-dog and really wanted a big dog that would play fetch instead, which is one of the script’s only good instincts, and his police partner, who has another agenda. Then we have a local sheriff and her budding love interest. We have a group of three odd local fellows who seem to be known for stealing from the town, and who are used as easy bear fodder. We have the children and a mother who is now looking for them. Then we have the titular Cocaine Bear. The movie is too unfocused to make good on any of their threads but the most you can say for the movie is that there are multiple things happening and it’s trying to go in several directions at once.
“In loving memory of Ray Liotta,” it says on the screen as the movie closes. Fuck, that’s right. This is also Ray Liotta’s last screen role. It’s devastating that it’s in this nothing movie and something better couldn’t have come from, at least, the chance to use an actor like Ray Liotta one last time. Fuck.
So all these threads are spinning out all at once and none of them really matter. The bear keeps contacting cocaine and going all crazy instead of just dying as the real-life bear would do. The CG for the bear is actually passable, when it sits still, but is unconvincing in motion. Like most CG-lead movies, it’s really hard to care about that part of it if all the things around the construction of the CG and the reason for it to exist aren’t also good. And none of the other ideas especially work and they aren’t really ideas anyway.
Everyone gets what they came for, perhaps, but even the Marijuana Humans are drawn to a faint whisper as they leave the screening. Most of them are departing as an additional pre-credits screen rolls and they do not turn around to watch it. The mood is just somber now. We’re not thinking about talking dogs or how funny blowing up oil pipelines would be. It’s just us and the refractory period. We were sold a bill of goods and then sat through a film that acknowledged that bill of goods and then did absolutely nothing else. It’s hard to even broach any further criticism — the film is hardly a film at all and yet it is what it says it is. Cocaine Bear. Measure your expectations accordingly and have faith in Marijuana Humans when they show up in your life. Sometimes they are all you have.