In the absence of the studio comedy, the only way American moviegoers can laugh is when “horrible people” are violently killed by something cute and small. M3GAN was a surprise hit last month: it came out of nowhere—at least for anyone not on TikTok—and was a step above usual January dreck, even if it pulled a couple punches. Still, I thought the movie was a soft R, but the strong PG-13 made it even more impressive. Again, for a genre movie released in the first couple months of the year before the Oscars, winter dumping ground for America as much as the summer is for France. Would you rather go to Saint-Tropez or M3GAN? What about Cocaine Bear?
Elizabeth Banks’ new film is a quintessential poster movie, like Knocked Up, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, or Dude, Where’s My Car? On the poster alone, you knew you’d see these movies, seeing them all for the first time at the theater, not on the internet or a newspaper (I’ll never forget the first time I saw the poster for Knocked Up, with wide-eyed sloppy Seth Rogen, the title, and the tagline: “WHAT IF THIS GUY GOT YOU PREGNANT?”). Poster movies are pure Americana, and the reflexive embarrassment and self-conscious about wanting to see them shows how close our carny and conman characteristics remain. COCAINE BEAR? I GOTTA SEE THAT!
Even after poster movies have lost the poster, when images and titles are released much earlier and widely than even the 2000s, the effect is still the same: I gotta see that. Unlike the surprisingly decent American Made from 2017, where Tom Cruise played Barry Seal (with a rough Southern accent), Cocaine Bear can’t get past its admittedly compelling premise: like Seal, Andrew C. Thornton II was an American narcotics officer who was smuggling cocaine in from South America. They both died violently and neither movie deals with the larger, much more interesting question of what the CIA was doing bringing mountains of cocaine into the United States. Cruise’s death is pulled off masterfully by Doug Liman by turning a POV home movie into a gradually decaying mess of silver static, freezing Cruise and wiping his face in close-up away as if on an Etch-a-Sketch.
American Made wasn’t a comedy. Banks’ film begins with Thornton hitting his head on the bay of the plane and falling to his death in Chattahoochee Mountains outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Through a couple of (Belgian? German? Dutch?) tourists hiking “with such good luck in nature,” we meet the cocaine bear: a mother whose cubs are introduced later, and whose gender is revealed by a recovery smuggler played by Alden Ehrenreich who lets everyone know that the bear is “a girl” because “its vagina is on my face right now.” Ehrenreich—along with fellow mercenary O’Shea Jackson Jr., FBI agent Isiah Whitlock Jr., mother Keri Russell, her daughter Brooklynn Prince, and her best friend Christian Convery—all converge on the bear after she’s eaten the cocaine. Everyone but Russell and the kids die horribly, either at the hands of the bear or their own incompetence with guns (Margot Martindale with the headshot!)
The problem with Cocaine Bear is that it has no momentum, and no star: the “monster” is hardly a monster at all, an innocent bear who has no idea what’s happening to her, whose cubs are freaked out and scared for their mom. Unlike M3GAN, the cocaine bear isn’t a bitch: she can’t even talk! There isn’t even any revenge motive set up for her: maybe Ehrenreich or Whitlock shot the cubs, and now mama’s out for blood. Banks’ film is rudderless, unable to reconcile the goofy broad comedy of the concept and the extreme violence and gore—nearly all CGI—throughout the film.
Cocaine Bear might appear more violent than it is, but I was shocked to see Ray Liotta, in his final film role, get his intestines clawed out by the cocaine bear. None of this is funny, but then again all of the bear’s victims are “horrible people”: without the studio comedy with the template of grown man children desperate “to score,” what’s broadly funny and culturally “acceptable” right now? Bloodlust for “bad people.” As much as I love this trend and its continued success (Cocaine Bear made back its budget in less than a week), it’s a disturbing mirror on what moviegoers want to laugh at. I found the movie very tame, too: the kids find some of the coke early, and despite eating it and holding up a pile to look at, neither of them snort any cocaine. Why can’t you cross that line? There’s a ton of brain matter and open skulls and detached limbs in this movie, why not decapitate a kid? Or the mom?
Everyone who dies is either bad or stupid—more like prideful, like the EMT’s, who are as dangerously complacent as the tourists that get ripped apart first. But wild violence only gets you so far, especially when its motivations are largely absent and, when examined, sad and unsettling in the wrong way. When the cocaine bear can’t talk, and has nothing to kill for, even 95 minutes feels like a stretch. Snakes on a Plane was better.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith