'Coffee & Kareem': Film Review

Coffee & Kareem - Publicity still - H 2020
That dumb title's as funny as it gets.

Ed Helms plays a cop struggling to keep his girlfriend's son safe in Michael Dowse's Netflix action-comedy co-starring Taraji P. Henson.

A tone-deaf attempt to recreate the nasty comic vibe people associate with certain '80s buddy cop films, Michael Dowse's Coffee & Kareem names a key character for director Walter Hill, just to make sure we know what it's going for. Then it tweaks the Eddie Murphy-era format by pairing a white cop with a distractingly foul-mouthed black 12-year old. It tosses this unlikable duo into a contrived scenario of dirty cops, drug dealers, strip clubs and endless reversals of fortune. But making a film that feels two days long is not the same thing as making 48 Hrs.

Dowse's last film, Stuber, covered similar violent territory, but benefitted immensely from an unexpectedly strong connection between Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani. It's clear from the start that C&K is trying far too hard to make its own leads colorfully provocative: Badly directed teen performer Terrence Little Gardenhigh gives his all to the foul, faux-tough dialogue Shane Mack's script puts in the mouth of Kareem, the son of a woman (Taraji P. Henson's Vanessa) who is dating dorky white policeman James Coffee (Ed Helms). "You fuck my mom, I'll fuck your life," he begins, warming up for later scenes that will have him threatening his teacher with cunnilingus in front of her students, then explaining that the secret to tough-guy talk is to be simultaneously aggressive and gay. You can imagine scripts and performers who'd make some of these lines genuinely offensive, funny or both; but Kareem is none of the above.

Officer Coffee is predictably terrified of his girlfriend's kid, and has to be tricked into picking him up from school for an afternoon of attempted bonding. But Kareem is such a lowlife that he gets the pair tangled up with a drug gang headed by a rapper (RonReaco Lee) just as the rapper's henchmen kill a police officer. In the midst of the kind of jokes about racist police violence that inevitably prompt curiosity about a writer or director's racial background, Coffee gets the kid out of danger and into hiding.

Predictable misunderstandings occur, and soon TV newscasts are full of reports that Coffee is a "psycho cop" who has kidnapped a child he probably intends to molest. Back at the station, Coffee's coworkers are hardly rushing to his defense. In fact, one — a hero detective played much too broadly by Betty Gilpin — is an obvious bad guy who starts setting Coffee up for a fall.

The further an actor is from a leading role here, the more likely she is give an unembarrassing performance. Henson fares all right for most of the film, at one point even getting to voice viewers' annoyance with dialogue that believes "you're a bitch!" / "no, you're a bitch!" counts as edgy banter. But Vanessa is dragged through the mud here as well — tased by her own son, handcuffed by her lover in the toilet of a no-tell motel. She'll forgive them, of course. Viewers may not be so generous.

Production company: Pacific Electric
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Ed Helms, Terrence Little Gardenhigh, Taraji P. Henson, Betty Gilpin, RonReaco Lee, Andrew Bachelor, David Alan Grier
Director: Michael Dowse
Screenwriter: Shane Mack
Producers: Mike Falbo, Ed Helms, Sanford Nelson
Executive producers: Dan Clarke, Jordon Foss
Director of photography: Brian Burgoyne
Production designer: Jeremy Stanbridge
Costume designer: Allisa Swanson
Editor: Daniel Gabbe
Composer: Joseph Trapanese
Casting directors: Raylin Sabo, Mary Vernieu

88 minutes