Cocaine Bear (2023)

I’m not sure how I didn’t recognize from promotional materials that Scott Seiss, best known online for his character of a retail employee who responds to F.A.C.s (that’s an acronym I just made up for “Frequent Asshole Comments”) the way that every retail employee wishes that they could, was the male paramedic in Cocaine Bear. He’s in pretty much every trailer! Further, I have no idea how I still didn’t put that together after seeing this video, in which he hypes Cocaine Bear in the same manner, noting that you don’t have to have done homework before seeing the movie and that there won’t be a dozen thinkpieces exploring the possible meanings behind the film’s ending. There’s no long-beloved intellectual property of which this is an adaptation (unless you count the actual 1985 events which very loosely inspired the plot), no secret clues about who’s going to be the villain in the next MCU feature, nothing to inspire a MatPat Film Theory video. Cocaine Bear is just a comedy-horror-thriller about a bear who does cocaine, and the people who find themselves caught in its freakout. And it’s a delight. 

Multiple story threads find themselves woven together from their disparate origins in the opening act of the film, as disparate parties are drawn together to Blood Mountain, a Georgia peak located in the Chattahoochee National Forest. After a drug drop goes south due to the delivery man bashing his skull on an airplane bulkhead while attempting to exit and parachute, a number of interested people become invested in trying to find the drugs that are missing on the mountain, as well as the law enforcement in pursuit of the traffickers. Kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta) sends his lieutenant Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) to the national park to find and recover the duffel bags, and tells him to bring along Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), Syd’s son who left the family business at the urging of his recently deceased wife Joanie, which the sociopathic Syd thinks means that his boy will be ready to get back into the trade. In Tennessee where the dead parachuter’s body has landed, Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire) leaves his new dog with Deputy Reba (Ayoola Smart) as he travels across state lines and out of his jurisdiction in pursuit of Syd, who he’s been chasing for years. Local middle schooler Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) skip school so that she can paint a picture of the park’s Secret Falls, an outing she was supposed to take with her mother Sari (Keri Russell) but which has been postponed due to Sari’s boyfriend inviting the two of them to Nashville for the weekend instead. At the park itself, Ranger Liz (character actress Margo Martindale) is preparing for a park inspection by Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), on whom she has a crush. And, of course, deep in the woods, there’s a mama bear who’s developing a taste for nose candy. 

As I was leaving the auditorium after the screening, a woman behind me declared, “Well, that sucked.” My viewing companion was also less than enthused on our drive away from the theater, although he was bemused by my passionate defense of the film. I’ve seen and heard criticism of the story, and while I wouldn’t exactly call the film’s composition an elegant puzzle box, it was very fun and moved at a great pace; I was never bored, and there was never a prolonged period of time between laughs. Not every joke landed for everyone in the audience, but there were some jokes that didn’t provoke a laugh from me while others produced a laugh only from me, and that’s a good balance for a comedy to strike. Maybe in future viewings I’ll find that some of the punchlines that didn’t land this time will land the next time, and I can say definitively that this is a comedy that I will watch again, which isn’t something that I say very often. I’ve long been a fan of campy, self-aware horror comedies, and long been opposed to movies that attempt to ape that specific genre and do it poorly; Cocaine Bear manages to walk that tightrope deftly, mostly by not calling attention to itself. 

I’ve lost count of how many movies and TV shows of the past decade attempted to cash in on nostalgia for the 1980s, but this film manages to capture the quintessence of movies from that era and combine it with the modern cinematic eye in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. With a 1985 setting, a lazier filmmaker would fill the soundtrack with songs from that year specifically and exclusively, but there’s greater verisimilitude in the text by including music that was recent and not just current. The film starts out with the Jefferson Starship track “Jane” (1979) and includes the 1984 track “The Warrior” by Scandal and featuring Patty Smyth, 1978’s “Too Hot ta Trot” by the Commodores, and even “On the Wings of Love” by Jeffrey Osborne (1982), which is plot-relevant in the scene in which it appears. It’s a small thing, but I appreciate it and the way that it evokes and inscribes its time period without worshipping it, like IT or Stranger Things. We’re not presented with an endless parade of 1980s pop culture or media—Remember Ghostbusters? Remember Nightmare on Elm Street? Remember G.I. Joe?—and, in fact, there’s very little reference to the media of the time at all. Outside of the use of actual contemporary media footage taken when Andrew Thornton landed, parachute undeployed, in an old man’s driveway and the appearance of a few of the era’s anti-drug PSAs, the only material reference to contemporary events comes in the form of the delivery of a new-and-improved Smokey the Bear stand-up to the ranger station. You’re not taken out of the reality of the moment because the period elements draw attention to themselves; you just exist there. There’s something that’s just so true about Keri Russell’s pink jumpsuit and the way that her purse strap has a big knot tied in it to shorten it; I don’t know what’s not to love. It’s grisly, fun, and campy, and I loved it. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond