A great work of cinema has more to offer than its surface narrative; look deeper into it, and the viewer will find metaphors and themes meriting thought and discussion.
Don’t look too deeply into “Cocaine Bear.”
Billed as “a film by Elizabeth Banks,” this flick is exactly what the title suggests: a romp about a large animal with a whole lotta coke pumping through its system.
At its heart, this is a comedy-monster movie, serving up about 90 minutes of cheap laughs and over-the-top manglings.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Penned by Jimmy Warden, “Cocaine Bear” is “inspired by” a 1985 incident involving a wild law-enforcement officer-turned-drug smuggler, a plane crash and a 175-pound black bear roaming the wilderness around Georgia’s Blood Mountain taking in a bunch of the powdery narcotic before dying not all that long afterward. From that inciting incident, Warden (“The Babysitter: Killer Queen”) has spun a wild story centered around a significantly larger bear with a beastly metabolism and a quickly developed drug habit.
The writing leaves a lot to be desired, but the bigger problem is that Banks — a prolific and engaging actress with a gift for comedy — still is finding her way in the director’s chair with this, her third effort at the helm. She previously directed 2015’s so-so “Pitch Perfect 2” and 2019’s highly disappointing “Charlie’s Angels.”
Sure, she finds a few laughs with “Cocaine Bear,” but not nearly as many as the situation should have produced. And she struggles to juggle the movie’s needlessly bloated cast of characters.
Among those encountering the bear at different points are local nurse Sari (Keri Russell), her spirited 12-year-old daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and the girl’s friend Henry (Christian Convery); drug dealer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), his heartbroken pal Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Eddie’s father, Syd (Ray Liotta), the boss of the drug operation who fears Colombians enraged by several pounds of missing cocaine; a trio of local young trouble makers the Duchamps (Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore and Leo Hanna); Liz (Margo Martindale), a park ranger, who has a crush on Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), an animal-rights activist; and Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a police detective on the drug case.
As the flimsy story unfolds, it’s at times more interesting to think about the connective tissue with a couple of the cast members and cast members with Banks.
It’s great to get a reunion between Russell and Martindale, who shared some memorable moments on the fantastic FX series “The Americans.” (Russell’s “Americans” co-star and real-life husband, Matthew Rhys, portrays the aforementioned smuggler, Andrew Thornton II, but does not share the screen with her or Martindale.)
“Modern Family” regular Ferguson often acted with recurring guest star Banks on that wonderful comedy series.
And Hannah Hoekstra, who portrays a hiker who runs afoul of the bear early in the movie, co-starred in “Charlie’s Angels.”
It’s also a treat to get one last performance from the late Liotta, even if this won’t be remembered among the most memorable from the “Goodfellas” star.
Jackson (“Straight Outta Compton), Ehrenreich (“Solo: A Star Wars Story”), Whitlock (“BlacKkKlansman”), acclaimed character actress Martindale and Convery (“Sweet Tooth”) add a little bit to the silly proceedings, but only a little.
The stakes never feel that high in “Cocaine Bear” — you get the feeling that if you care at all about a character, he or she likely will be OK — so you’re mostly left to enjoy the maulings, which are reasonably fun … at least as maulings go.
By the way, no actual bears were used in the filming, the production team instead turning to Weta, the New Zealand-based special effects company founded by Peter Jackson, to bring the big gal to menacing life. She looks pretty good.
Given the mediocrity of the material, there probably wasn’t a top-level movie about a rampaging, cocaine-fueled bear to be made here. Nevertheless, in the hands of Banks — who gets too little help from editor Joel Negron (“Thor: Ragnarok”) — “Cocaine Bear” isn’t what it could have been.
You’d expect neither theme nor metaphor, but something beyond the occasional comedic buzz would have been nice.
When: Feb. 24.
Rated: R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout.
Runtime: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Stars (of four): 2.