‘Cocaine Bear’ is Here to Strike a Blow to Staid Hollywood

February 22, 2023

NEW YORK — On Dec. 22, 1985, The Associated Press reported the following from Blue Ridge, Georgia:

“Investigators searching for cocaine dropped by an airborne smuggler have found a ripped-up shipment of the sweet-smelling powder and the remains of a bear that apparently died of a multimillion-dollar high.”

Police found a sad scene. A 175-lb. black bear dead near a duffle bag and some $2 million worth of cocaine that had been opened and scattered over a hillside. The parachutist, a former Kentucky narcotics investigator, had fallen to his death in a backyard in Knoxville, Tennessee. His unmanned airplane crashed into a North Carolina mountain. Back in Georgia, the bear, examiners said, had overdosed.

The story is in many ways too much. Too absurd. Too ’80s. Even the screenwriters of the “Fast & Furious” movies would think it far-fetched. The stranger-than-fiction tale quickly receded from the headlines and, before some began to stoke the myth of “Pablo Escobear,” it mostly stayed buried in news media archives.

This image released by Universal Pictures shows O’Shea Jackson, Jr., from left, Alden Ehrenreich, Ayoola Smart and Ray Liotta in a scene from “Cocaine Bear,” directed by Elizabeth Banks. (Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures via AP)

That changed when screenwriter Jimmy Warden delivered to producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller a script titled “Cocaine Bear.” They were on board from page one.

“When the movie’s pitched, you hear the word ‘Cocaine,’ you’re like I’m not sure what to think of this,” Lord says. “Then when you hear the word ‘Bear,’ you’re like: I’m all in.”

Yes, “Cocaine Bear” is a real movie. And after it opens in theaters Friday, it might even be a hit. Since the trailer first debuted for Elizabeth Banks’ very, very loosely based-on-a-true-story R-rated comedy has stoked a rabid zeitgeist. At a time when much in Hollywood can feel pre-packaged, the makers of “Cocaine Bear” think it can be an untamed exception.

“Hopefully the film lives up to the title,” Banks says, smiling. “That was the goal.”

Little on the movie calendar has captured the public imagination quite like “Cocaine Bear.” Its trailer, watched more than 25 million times, immediately went viral. The movie, itself, is like a meme sprung to life — a kind of spiritual heir to “Snakes on a Plane” crossed with a Paddington Bear fever dream. Everything about it is propelled by a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and can-you-believe-this-is-a-real-movie wink. “I’m the bear who ate cocaine,” reads one of the film’s official tweets. “This is my story.”

While most studio movies are driven by well-known intellectual property and few original comedies manage to attract audiences in theaters, “Cocaine Bear” is here to strike a blow to business-as-usual in Hollywood. “Cocaine Bear” is here to be bold. “Cocaine Bear” is here to party.

“You have to demonstrate theatricality to get the greenlight. It just means you have to swing the bat a little harder,” Lord says. “In this world that’s increasingly mechanized, things that don’t feel mechanized have really special value.”

Miller and Lord have in recent years shepherded some of the most vibrant and irreverent films to the screen, including “The Lego Movie,””Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “The Mitchells vs the Machines.” They like to take apart old conventions and give them an absurdist, post-modern spin.

“Certainly, this movie was not mandated by a corporation,” Miller says, laughing. “It’s a thing we somehow snuck through the system. That’s how we love to make all our movies, like: ‘I can’t believe they let us get away with this.'”

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Aaron Holliday, left, and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. in a scene from “Cocaine Bear.” (Universal Pictures via AP)

Warden had been a production assistant on their 2012 action comedy “21 Jump Street.” After hearing about the 1985 story, Warden wrote the script on spec and hoped his old bosses would like it. Intrigued at the screenplay’s possibility, the producers found an unexpectedly open reception from Universal Pictures chief Donna Langley.

“What’s funny is that we thought it would be difficult because of the subject matter. But surprisingly, they were excited right from the jump and didn’t shy away from the movie, its tone or even its title,” says Miller. “We thought at some point, someone was going to say, ‘Well you can’t call it ‘Cocaine Bear.’ You have to call it ‘A Walk in the Woods.'”

Since her directorial debut in 2015’s “Pitch Perfect 2,” Banks has carved out a second career behind the camera. She last helmed 2019’s “Charlie’s Angels.” With Universal’s backing and Lord and Miller producing, “Cocaine Bear” struck her as not just a viable, actually-happening project but one where she could marry a gory animal attack movie with comedy.

“Most people are surprised that it is a real thing, and very surprised that I’m the person that made it,” says Banks, laughing. “I just got a text from someone who was like, ‘I’ve been hearing about this movie and I had no idea you made it.'”

Though the title meant “Cocaine Bear” would be limited from some advertising platforms, the filmmakers describe the studio as interested in leaning into what made the film distinct from the all the options viewers are inundated with. Nothing, it turned out, could cut through all the noise like “Cocaine Bear.”

“They love things with strong flavor. That’s the word I hear a lot in my marketing meetings,” Banks says. “It’s harder and harder to find things that are theatrically exciting. The hope was that we were making something people needed to leave their house to see.”

The film, itself, takes the basis of the real story and imagines what might have transpired if the bear didn’t quickly die but went on a coke-fueled rampage through a national forest, terrorizing park wardens, campers and drug dealers seeking the lost shipment. After an initial taste, the bear goes after more cocaine with all the zeal of Yogi pursuing a picnic basket.

The bear, named Cokie, was a CGI concoction created by Weta FX with Allen Henry, a stunt man and student of Andy Serkis, performing motion capture. He wore all black and walked on all fours with prosthetic arms. The rest of the cast includes Keri Russell, Margo Martindale, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson and Ray Liotta. It’s one of Liotta’s final performances before his death last May, and one that connects back to his similarly cocaine-laced performance in “Goodfellas.”

“I’ve said that this film felt very risky. The risk was: I was never going to have the lead character of the movie on the set of the movie,” Banks says. “That was truly what scared me the most. If the bear didn’t work, the movie falls apart.”

Lord and Miller hope that there’s a rising realization within the film industry that movies that are audaciously original can pack theaters. Lord points to the Academy Awards favorite “Everything Everywhere All at Once” as recent proof.

“It could win best picture and it’s the zaniest idea out there,” Lord says. “For the scale of that movie, it’s a huge hit. What we’re after is demonstrating that these movies can be original and fun and surprising and they can be hits.”

“I can’t think of a movie that came out last year that wouldn’t have been maybe a little bit better if there had a been a cocaine-fueled bear on a rampage as part of it,” adds Miller. “Imagine if ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ had a big bear just running through biting that guy’s fingers off.”

If it’s successful, “Cocaine Bear” could, of course, become a franchise of its own. A sequel isn’t out the question. “LSD Armadillo”? “Quaalude Tortoise”? Banks, for now, is deferring.

“Somebody will put something into the AI chat bot and it will spit out something ridiculous and the internet will write it for us.”


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