The spirit of Cocaine Bear is epitomized in a scene in which the titular bear snorts the titular cocaine off of the leg of a wildlife activist. It is gruesome. It is absurd. It is hilarious.
It’s based—extremely loosely—on the real life story of a black bear that came across and subsequently ate millions of dollars of cocaine dropped in the Georgia wilderness by drug smugglers whose plane was crashing in 1985. The bear, nicknamed Pablo Escobear, died in real life. In the fictional telling of Cocaine Bear, it goes on a drug-fueled rampage that alternately confuses, amuses, and terrifies the humans with whom it comes in contact.
Keri Russell stars as Sari, a single mother in search of her daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) who skipped school to paint a waterfall in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest with her friend Henry (Christian Convery). Also traipsing through the forest: drug dealer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and his begrudging partner Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich); Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.); Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and wildlife activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); and a gang of awkward wannabe gangsters. Paths cross—with each other and the bear—and hijinks ensue.
Horror comedy requires a delicate balance that Cocaine Bear does not always strike. Director Elizabeth Banks really goes for it in depicting the gore and brutality of a bear attack, and at times the film veers a little too far in the direction of a slasher. To her credit, the result is a genuinely nerve-wracking film with real moments of horror. But the gore is a tad overdone. The first time we see a person literally torn apart is shocking. The second time, it is alarming. The third time and beyond are gratuitous. Fortunately, Banks handles the humor side with aplomb and subtlety. She lets the absurdity of the situation and the characters speak for themselves, a choice carried out successfully in large part thanks to the strength of the cast.