Audiences Crave Gruesome Black Comedy. Cocaine Bear Delivers.

Cocaine Bear, a pretty mediocre black comedy about a bear that goes on a cocaine-fueled rampage in 1980s Georgia, is wildly successful with critics and audiences alike. It’s testament to a real craving for dark, gruesome, off-the-chain laughs right now.

Still from Cocaine Bear. (Universal Pictures)

There are a lot of reports of big box office earnings and audiences calling out appreciative, mind-blown, what-the-hell-is-this-I-love-it comments during screenings of Cocaine Bear. Then they break out into exuberant applause at the end and follow it all up with enthusiastic posts online. Which just goes to show how lucky some movies get. They show up at the right place and time, striking people at the perfect reflex point so that they only have to exclaim, “Cocaine Bear!” to make others laugh uproariously in response.

Cocaine Bear is also that rare eccentric, original story produced on a modest scale, not some big Marvel movie or Oscar-bait film, that is getting a theatrical release and exceeding expectations of success. Jesus Revolution, which premiered this week and is also doing better than predicted, is another example. Movies like these provide an elusive flutter of hope among those watching Hollywood filmmaking emerge from the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic — while now facing an impending Writers Guild of America strike. Will the industry continue to double down on its Marvel-or-bust strategy, or will it perhaps start producing more and better Cocaine Bear–style releases?

In this sense, I’m Team Cocaine Bear, of course, though for all its success with audiences and critics, Cocaine Bear — considered as a movie rather than an industry phenomenon — is pretty weak. It’s chock-full of gruesome bear maulings, but it’s somehow not scary, perhaps because of the very badly digitized bear. And it’s only occasionally funny, even when it seems as if the missing one-liners would’ve written themselves. It’s one of those movies that really needs a packed, avid, vocal audience to make it seem better than it is, and I wish I’d been part of one when I watched it.

I’ve been wanting to see Cocaine Bear since I first watched the memorable trailer, which has all the snappy timing and wild slapstick I hoped would characterize the entire film. Its deranged concept hits a cultural nerve — even the title is right, if you’re being driven sufficiently crazy by our multidecade American-style apocalypse that you want to see it reflected back at you in an anything-bad-can-happen black comic form.

Just having characters in the movie yell repeatedly, “The bear did cocaine!” seems sufficient to delight people.

It’s based on the real-life story of a black bear in Tennessee that ingested who knows how much cocaine, a portion of a shipment that was thrown out of a plane during a drug delivery mishap back in 1985. Drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II died in a failed attempt to parachute out of the plane wearing seventy-seven pounds of coke strapped to his waist, as the film documents, running grainy old TV footage of a young Tom Brokaw reporting on the bizarre news of the discovery of Thornton’s body.

The bear also died almost immediately, of course, of a massive overdose, and became a local legend, nicknamed “Pablo Eskobear,” after the drug kingpin. He’s now stuffed and on display at a mall in Kentucky.

The movie, written by Jimmy Warden and directed by Elizabeth Banks, chucks out the real black bear’s sad fate so the animal can live on in film as a grizzly-bear-size coke fiend terrorizing the local population. Shot in Ireland, which is standing in for rural Georgia, the film features a terrific cast working hard to enliven a generally flat script, including Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, Ray Liotta, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Matthew Rhys, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Scott Seiss, aka “Angry Retail Guy” of viral video fame.

Seiss, who has a big online following, gives one of the standout performances in the film due to his excellent comedic timing in the small role of an EMT confronting the drug-maddened bear. Martindale has a nice vinegary presence as a park ranger with a crush on the local wildlife expert (Ferguson), whose expertise is of no use to him in such an improbable emergency. In part because he has a better-written character than most, Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!, Solo: A Star Wars Story) is great as Eddie, the son of the local gangland drug runner, Syd (Liotta). Recently widowed, Eddie is in such a state of mourning that he can hardly finish a sentence without weeping. He’s gotten a tattoo on his chest in honor of his late wife, Joan, only it was misspelled as “JOHN.” But he has to wait a week for the tattoo to heal before the lettering can be fixed, “which means seven more days of John!,” he sobs.

It helps to have such a talent for line delivery — you can make anything funny, such as when Ehrenreich’s Eddie is asked by his friend and Syd’s fixer, Daveed (Jackson Jr), if the penne pasta he’s eating is plain or has sauce on it. Eddie bursts out tearfully, “Plain!,” as if the saucelessness of his pasta is what makes his tragedy truly unbearable.

Ehrenreich has been an actor to watch for a number of years, but especially since his spectacular comic turn in the Coen brothers’ 2016 film Hail, Caesar!. In it, he plays laconic 1950s cowboy star Hobie Doyle, who’s suddenly miscast as a tuxedoed light comedian in a high-society farce called Merrily We Dance. Hobie maddens his snobbish ascot-wearing British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) while trying to deliver, in botched take after botched take, the tongue-twisting line “Would that it were so simple.”

He’s still one to watch. Somebody get this man a good star-making leading role!

But several of the other actors in the ensemble are wasted, including the highly talented Keri Russell, who’s burdened with the unfunny role of the good mother, protecting cute, endangered children. She’s representing the leaden moral ballast attached to the movie that affirms dedication to family and heroism during a crisis and punishes those who transgress. Even “Cokey the Cocaine Bear” has to prove her bona fides at the end, by defending and then frolicking with her adorable though cocaine-addicted baby bear cubs.

In one of his last film roles, Ray Liotta plays the main transgressor against the film’s code, and though it was a ripe opportunity for him to parody his own history of memorable gangster and bad-guy parts, he’s given very little comic business. It seems that, behind the scenes, Liotta himself tried to remedy this problem of having to play most of his scenes straight, according to actor-director Banks: “He asked for more jokes when he read the script, which I loved. . . . He was like, ‘Everybody seems like they have some funny lines, I need to be quirkier in this movie.’”

Still, it seems that Liotta enjoyed himself and really got into the filmmaking experience of Cocaine Bear. And his time in Ireland was important to him:

“He wrapped his last scene, and he was covered in blood and guts — and then he gave this beautiful speech [to the cast and crew],” Banks told Esquire. “He said, ‘I’m adopted. My last name’s Liotta, and because of my career, everybody assumes I’m Italian, but I recently found out that I am actually mostly Irish. . . . So this trip has been so special to me because I didn’t understand the connection that I actually had to this place and to the Irish people. And everybody’s been so nice.’”

If for no other reason than that, we should be grateful to Cocaine Bear. It helped make Ray Liotta happy.

Plus, it’s been interesting to see how big the audience response is to a mostly mediocre black comedy. There’s obviously a real craving for wild, dark, gruesome, off-the-chain laughs representing our helpless response to terror that some more ambitious filmmakers could get in on. As we wait to get hit with our next source of real-life horror — will it be a crazy storm or other climate-change-related natural disaster? A new, even more deadly COVID variant? Another train crash that unleashes lethal toxins, or some other collapsing part of our infrastructure that imperils whole regions? Or perhaps we’ll finally plunge into the long-awaited World War III — the time for this type of film will never be riper than now.