Coffee and Kareem

Coffee & Kareem is boilerplate action-comedy for the streaming masses

This throwback buddy cop comedy borrows liberally from the cinematic palette of the ’80s.

I’m going to try not to do this for the foreseeable future, because criticism should stand alone even months or years after it was written, but it’s hard to take Coffee & Kareem at face value during the pandemic. It’s not really because of its content, either. If every day of the last three weeks has seemed like a month in itself, it makes the fossilized humour of this junky riff on Cop and a Half (!) feel positively unstuck in time. What may have felt old-school a couple of months ago now feels completely ancient and out-of-touch. Director Michael Dowse brought pretty much this exact violent, throwback vibe to Stuber, an equally generic premise that nevertheless benefitted from slightly off-centre personalities in its mismatched leads. Coffee & Kareem, more than anything, suffers from the profoundly unoriginal duo at its centre.

Dorky police officer James Coffee (Ed Helms) is a low man on the totem pole at Detroit PD, constantly bullied by Detective Linda Watts (Betty Gilpin) and forced to endure humiliations in front of his superior (David Alan Grier). The one bright spot in Coffee’s life (which is full of the beta banality that we have now come to associate with Ed Helms characters in movies like this one) is his relationship with Vanessa Manning (Taraji P. Henson), a nurse and single mother of a foul-mouthed, precocious 12-year-old named Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh).

James and Vanessa’s relationship is mainly put to the test by Kareem, who seems absolutely disgusted that his mother is not only sleeping with a white guy, but a white cop to boot. In an attempt to right this wrong, Kareem approaches local kingpin Orlando Johnson (RonReaco Lee) to try and hire him to take out coffee, only to walk in on Johnson and two of his acolytes (Andrew Bachelor and William “Big Sleeps” Stewart) killing a cop. Kareem captures the act on video and is soon joined by Coffee on the site of the murder, forcing the two of them to go on the lam before Coffee is inevitably framed for the murder by corrupt higher-ups.

The dynamic is pretty simple: Coffee is a moustachioed dork who says things like “sometimes a stepdad is a step in the right direction,” while Kareem talks a big game about how hard he is and how big his dick is but remains an overweight 12-year-old with just about the amount of game that that entails. Both project their insecurities on each other and lob insults back and forth, with Coffee stumbling over ineffectual insults (“you’re both a dick and an ass: a dass”) and Kareem almost perpetually resorting to calling Coffee a pedophile as is usually the case for precocious children in R-rated comedies.

There’s nothing really wrong with the dynamic — in fact, it has worked well countless times before — but the characters aren’t sharply drawn enough to highlight the dynamic. The jokes are pretty much always exactly as expected, an exercise in creating a “functional” comedic screenplay that nevertheless has very little personality.

In that same sense, the film doesn’t give its cast much to work with. Helms has done this (moustache-less, for the most part) a million times before, Gardenhigh is charismatic enough if a little prone to hamming it up and Henson does what she can with a mostly perfunctory role. The film’s MVP has to be Gilpin, who has had a bang-up month of being angry and terrifying in movies that are otherwise much below her paygrade.

The surprise of the film is Lee, an actor I’m not that familiar with and who seems to have had a fairly inconspicuous comedic career prior to this film. The character of Orlando Johnson isn’t very original. He’s a gangster who doesn’t actually want to be one, which is every gangster in every comedy ever made. But Lee at least infuses him with a humour and humanity that is clearly not required by the rest of the film.

Michael Dowse is one of the ‘’mainstream” comedy directors who can best handle action, mainly because he seems to have a bottomless well of appreciation for the spit-shined grittiness of ’80s action movies. As expected, Coffee & Kareem borrows largely from the palette of Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon in a way that isn’t thoroughly misplaced, but sometimes suffers from the film’s relatively low budget and limited scope. Coffee and Kareem is almost better at being an action-comedy than it is at being a comedy, but even those elements seem like less elaborate leftovers from Stuber.

A few weeks ago, I talked about how Spenser Confidential seemed like an extremely accurate product of the Netflix algorithm: a film designed to hit as many elements as possible based on data gathered from the rest of the programming. Coffee & Kareem seems to come from the opposite school of thought: a more carefree approach where it seems that a very clear premise and poster is all you need to really make a movie. It’s Netflix looking at its catalogue and thinking, “Well, I guess we don’t have an action movie where a comedy guy and a little kid team up yet” and going out and making something that, we can all agree, clears the bar on that description. ■

Coffee & Kareem is on Netflix Canada now.

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