- Coffee & Kareem
- Directed by Michael Dowse
- Written by Shane Mack
- Starring Ed Helms, Taraji P. Henson and Betty Gilpin
- Classification N/A; 88 minutes
I confess: When I first read Netflix’s description of its new action-comedy Coffee & Kareem, I felt like I had stumbled upon a rejected Tropic Thunder joke: “A Detroit cop reluctantly teams with his girlfriend’s 11-year-old son to clear his name and take down the city’s most ruthless criminal.” It sounded, like a good-sized portion of the streaming giant’s other 2020 fare, akin to an elevator pitch made at the very bottom of the shaft – a desperate mishmash of Kindergarten Cop and a dozen other listless buddy-cop movies, but lazily engineered to appeal to some indecipherable demographic spat up courtesy of Netflix’s audience algorithm.
The first 15 minutes of Coffee & Kareem support such cynical suspicions, as if director Michael Dowse and screenwriter Shane Mack were working off a storyboard filled not with mapped-out scenes, but Post-it Notes displaying tropes like “filthy-mouthed kid,” “gangsta rap” and “in flagrante delicto” (though you might wonder if that last concept was spelled out in more crass terms).
Yet after the filmmakers clear their throats and take a look around to see if any Netflix execs are watching, Coffee & Kareem begins to become at least mildly diverting, and even a bit subversive. Slowly, but not always confidently, Dowse and Mack begin to upend obligations of the structure, play fast and loose with the limits of good taste and wind up with, while far from a comedic masterpiece, an enjoyably reckless piece of vulgar entertainment.
The story doesn’t go much beyond that aforementioned log-line: Disgraced Detroit cop James Coffee (a mustachioed Ed Helms, in full Andy Bernard-in-The-Office mode) is forced to embark on a city-wide adventure with his girlfriend’s troublesome 12-year-old son (Terrence Little Gardenhigh) – not 11 as Netflix originally announced; I guess they decided he needed to be aged up a little in order to justify the truly disgusting filth flowing from his mouth – to take down a drug lord. Along the way, the pair manage to imperil the lives of everyone from Kareem’s mother (Taraji P. Henson) to his police colleagues (David Alan Grier, Betty Gilpin) to a group of French-Canadian traffickers (sure, why not?).
It could have all been so rote and juvenile and obvious, and parts do rather obviously chase that kids-say-the-darndest-things high of last summer’s Good Boys. But the Canadian director Dowse manages to do what he couldn’t manage with his last for-hire Hollywood project, 2019′s similarly buddy-cop shoot-'em-up Stuber. He squishes the genre between his fingers, and takes whatever colourful narrative and aesthetic goo that flows out and flings it right back at the screen. That metaphor may sound laboured, but it’s as accurate a description as to Dowse’s mighty, but only 70-per-cent successful, work here. Coffee & Kareem is messy, but it’s an interesting sort of gross chaos.
So, while the filmmaker could have skated away with having a trio of gangbangers as his villains, he decided (maybe in concert with screenwriter Mack, maybe not) to have the men constantly engage with their own stereotypes. Ditto the damsel-in-distress routine Henson seems initially saddled with, and the uneasy partnership chemistry between Gardenhigh and Helms (the latter far from his Hangover trilogy box-office glory days, but hey, who isn’t far from grace right about now?).
Mostly, though, it’s appreciated how Dowse gleefully throws a wrench into the mechanics of the plot, coming up with a huh-okay-I’ll-bite second-act twist that further reveals Gilpin as this spring’s MVP of projects that don’t necessarily deserve her (here’s looking at you, The Hunt). Then, to just further muck things about, Dowse and his crew cover the entire movie in a slick gloss of grim and guts – a neat middle finger to ostensible expectations. All that, and there’s a decent Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans joke, too. These days, that’s just enough to get a pass.
Coffee & Kareem is available to stream on Netflix starting April 3
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.