Updated: Apr 17, 2023
Elizabeth Banks' take on the bonkers concept is a muddled and uninvolving affair
Elizabeth Banks is, quietly, one of the most versatile and consistent actresses working in the last two decades. From comedies like Wet Hot American Summer (2001), to dramas like Love & Mercy (2014), and even blockbusters like The Hunger Games (2012). Banks has been recently trying to foray into directing, finding a comfortable niche in the mid-budget feature, but sadly has been unable to deliver a true calling card, after the tepid results of Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) and the Charlie’s Angels (2019) reboot. Her latest directing effort proves to be no improvement.
Cocaine Bear (2023) is loosely based on the true story of a black bear who accidentally ingested cocaine in a Georgian national park in 1985. In real life the bear died after a couple of minutes, Cocaine Bear imagines the violent rampage that this apex predator could have gone on. We find a disparate set of characters trying to survive this rampage, from a nurse (Keri Russell) looking for her mischievous child (Brooklynn Prince), to drug runners (Oshea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich) searching for the titular cocaine.
Cocaine Bear seems to come tantalizingly close to finding a balanced identity. With the title and set-up that it has, Banks correctly doesn’t take the subject too seriously; however, she never quite settles on a definitive tone either. There is an indecisive shift between slasher, comedy, and satire that never quite mixes. The lack of a clear genre causes for none of the tones to hit, and as such Cocaine Bear ends up flopping in all of them, being largely unfunny, unintriguing, and not scary.
There was also the puzzling decision of directing Cocaine Bear as if it were meant to be a cult film, however, the production had the budget and cast of a Hollywood studio film. This cult desire, thus, comes across as desperate pandering from Hollywood bigwigs, attempting to be seen as cool and not mainstream. The strange middle ground that Cocaine Bear is left on makes the film come across as cheap instead. This is apparent in the narrative tone as well as the film aesthetic itself. The bear visual effects are not quite up to par, and Banks unwisely chooses to show the animal in clear lighting for much of its action. When a visual effects budget is tight, directors usually choose to have their CGI displayed in night scenes or in shadowy environments to not make its defects obvious.
Banks chooses to focus on too many characters as well. While the star-power of her Hollywood friends no doubt helped get the film made (Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Jesse Tyler Ferguson all make appearances), it makes for a more disorienting and uninvolving story. The structuring and editing process in general of Cocaine Bear is worryingly mediocre, with establishing shots missing, tension scenes shot from the wrong angle, and the shifts between storylines coming abruptly in the middle of scenes. This latter aspect is perhaps the most noticeable of all, as scenes are abandoned to cut to another set of characters, only to return to finish the original scene minutes later. This gave off the impression of an incongruous script that hadn’t found a way to make its disparate characters fit cleanly together.
Banks is sadly unable to wrangle any fun out of this bonkers concept. The confused mix of genres, unconvincing campy tone, and poor editing and character management makes Cocaine Bear yet another tepid and forgettable entry in Banks’ directorial filmography. In the end, Cocaine Bear sadly doesn’t reach the fun potential of its title and will unlikely turn into the cult-classic it was so clearly craving to be.