The Gnarliest Comedy of the Year is Streaming Now on Amazon Prime
It’s a flawed but fun time.
2023 is shaping up to be one of the best years for big-screen comedies in, well, a while. For several years there, it looked like the standard American studio comedy had been totally erased from the Hollywood marketplace. While some of them haven’t been box office hits, either, films like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, No Hard Feelings, Joy Ride, Operation Fortune: Ruse De Guerre, and Theater Camp have, thankfully, proven that’s not necessarily the case.
The year’s comedy lineup got off to a pretty good, surprisingly gnarly start in February with Cocaine Bear. The film, which is loosely inspired by a true story from the 1980s, centers around the carnage that ensues after a wild black bear ingests several kilos’ worth of cocaine. Directed by Elizabeth Banks and featuring a star-studded ensemble, it’s a horror comedy with a refreshing mean streak and a bloodlust that is, at times, genuinely shocking.
Cocaine Bear’s story is simple. After a drug smuggler accidentally dies before he can collect his shipment of cocaine from the wilderness of Georgia, his drugs are left to be found and consumed by an unsuspecting black bear. The drugs cause the bear to unleash a manic, blood-soaked reign of mayhem upon all nearby human hikers. Unfortunately, when a midwestern drug kingpin (played by the late, great Ray Liotta) decides to retrieve the drugs himself, he only brings even more disorder to an already dangerous, deadly situation.
Cocaine Bear is, in other words, a fairly straightforward horror comedy. Over the course of its thankfully lean 95-minute runtime, the film finds a seemingly endless variety of ways to tear its human characters apart. Visually, Banks’ direction and overreliance on CGI leaves a little to be desired. Her uneven, occasionally static staging renders certain sections and set pieces surprisingly ineffective as well. For all of its flaws, though, Cocaine Bear still manages to deliver the kind of gonzo, gory highs that feel increasingly rare in mainstream American cinema.
The film’s blend of comedy, action, and horror reaches its peak around Cocaine Bear’s midpoint in a cabin attack that extends into an ambulance chase. The sequence rides high on its own frenzied energy — escalating from one absurdly brutal moment of violence to another until the mayhem has spilled out of its initial cabin and onto a nearby road. It’s a gloriously nonsensical, deliciously mean slice of chaos, and it represents the moment when Cocaine Bear truly fulfills the promise of its own nutty premise.
There are other memorable highs scattered throughout Cocaine Bear, including a standoff between three of its human characters and its central beast. The scene in question highlights the impeccable comedic timing of Alden Ehrenreich, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and O'Shea Jackson Jr., three of Cocaine Bear’s best players, and it makes surprisingly great use of its exterior gazebo space. Once the film’s titular bear and Ray Liotta’s stubborn criminal have both entered the picture, the scene is able to reach an unexpected level of comedic tension.
Ultimately, Cocaine Bear is just an extremely fun time. It’s far from perfect and won’t necessarily leave much of a lasting impression, but it’s also one of the most distinct comedies of the year so far — and certainly the most bloodthirsty. More than anything, it proves that studio American comedies don’t have to stick to a particular formula or tone. They can be many different things — even quasi-horror movies about coked-up bears that go on killing frenzies.