A film review by Craig J. Koban April 14, 2020


2020, No MPAA Rating, 88 mins.


Ed Helms as Coffee  /  Terrence Little Gardenhigh as Kareem  /  Taraji P. Henson as Vanessa  /  Betty Gilpin as 

RonReaco Lee as Orlando 

David Alan Grier as 

Directed by Michael Dowse  /  Written by Shane Mack


COFFEE & KAREEM is a new comedy that definitely wants to have its cake and eat it too.  This latest Netflix original film wants to appease fans of multiple genres - the cop buddy action comedies of yesteryear, kid friendly family comedies, and hyper foul mouthed, lewd, and unapologetically hard R-rated raunch fests.  It yearns to be cute and foul at the same time.  So, what audience was this film designed for?  This makes for a most awkward amalgamation of influences, none of which flow together with any sense of cohesiveness.  That's not to say that there aren't some laughs to be had throughout COFFEE & KAREEM, but they're mostly of the scattershot and mixed bagged variety.  Plus, the film has some questionable handling of its obvious racial undertones that left a bad taste in my mouth (more on that in a bit).   

Think 48 HOURS meets COP AND A HALF and you'll kind of get the idea.  COFFEE & KAREEM belongs on a terribly long list of films that contain (what Roger Ebert called) The Odd Couple Formula, which referred to movies with "seemingly incompatible characters that are linked to each other in a plot which depends on their differences for its comic and dramatic interest." In this film's case, one of the "heroes" is an ultra wimpy white cop and the other is a young trash talking African American pre-teen with a potty mouth that would make the stand-up routines of Richard Pryor look like Sesame Street by comparison.  The dweeby cop in question is Ed Helms' James Coffee (get it...his name is ironic because...he's white!), who's in an interracial relationship with Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson, seriously slumming it here), who most certainly holds the power reins between the pair.  Her son is Terrace Little Gardenhigh's 12-year-old Kareem (like cream...as in coffee and cream....oh how clever!), who drops F-bombs with the frequency of the characters from GOODFELLAS.  Predictably and upon meeting his mom's spineless white boyfriend, Kareem takes an instant dislike of Coffee and plots his destruction.   

Kareem does what all well adjusted adolescents do when faced with a dilemma: He hires a local criminal gangbanger, Orlando (RonReaco Lee), to "take out" Coffee.  In a would-be hysterical scene, Kareem accidentally uncovers Orlando's massive drug crime empire that involves many dirty cops.  When the hapless Coffee is unable to capture, arrest, and turn Orlando into the police, he fully realizes that both he, Kareem, and his mother are in danger (the clueless kid left his phone at the crime scene, which recorded Orlando's crooked activities).  With the full knowledge that all of this is well above his pay grade and skill set, Coffee decides to team up Kareem to stay safe and avoid detection from Orlando's goon squad, all while trying to ensure Vanessa's safety and hunt for clues into which two faced cops back at the department are in on this (and trust me when I say this...as soon as a few fellow officers are introduced early in the film it's not a shock at all to see them revealed as evil later on). 



Okay, where do I even start with COFFEE & KAREEM?  

To start with, I'm no prude.  At all.  I'm not easily offended.  Some of the funniest films that I've ever seen are aggressively coarse and unrefined.  That, and I genuinely like the buddy cop genre as a whole and have been pretty easy on it over the years.  Also, I've enjoyed recent films that predominantly featured very young kids spewing vulgarities (see the quite amusing GOOD BOYS from last summer).  However, there's no denying that hearing 12-year-old characters curse up a storm throughout a film's running time can be a grating endurance test, not to mention that it seems like a one joke premise that runs the risk of not going very far.  I was not turned off by Kareem being filthy minded here.  It's just that he's so toxically dislikeable as a character and rarely feels emotionally relatable in the same way the vulnerable and flawed children were in GOOD BOYS.  Obviously, this fatherless kid has had a tough go of it in life, which may or may not explain his perpetual need to use raw language as a coping mechanism.  But he's so repellently and unbelievably foul here, not to mention that a lot of his tough talking put downs lashed out towards Coffee involve jabs about homophobia, gay child rape, and all other forms of bodily parts and functions.  At one point he screams at Coffee, "I'll tell people you force fed me muscle relaxers to loosen up my asshole!"  

This is also the same kid that plotted to have Coffee murdered. 

How...very...very funny. 

Kareem, quite simply put, is one of the nastiest and vile youth characters that has seen the light of day in quite some time, but the screenplay by Shane Mack (not to be confused with Shane Black) sure wants us to like this thug and roar with laughter at everything he says and does.  You can't have a character this deplorable come off as adorable as well.  It just doesn't work.  It's a shame, because Gardenhigh is an assured performer with an obvious knack for timing and delivery, but here he's saddled with an obnoxious jerk of a role, and one that usually relies on molestation humor to get his point across (how charming).  Using a boy to unleash gay panic humor throughout notwithstanding (this film confuses dirtiness with edginess), the overall racial makeup and dynamics of COFFEE & KAREEM are embarrassingly spotty at best.  Considering the questionable dynamic between white cops and black kids and all of the sordid real life history that this digs up, this film opts to paint its characters with the broadest strokes and stereotypes possible instead of getting deep inside their respective heads and let the laughs flow from that organically.  

Just look at Helm's Coffee.  He's one of those silly white caricatures that hopelessly thinks he's progressive minded simply because he's dating a black women.  This makes him instant canon fodder for Kareem's insult dispensing hoodlum, and he takes every opportunity to attack his overall whiteness.  A better comedy and/or satire would find more novel ways of taking on the racial and cultural divides of these characters from both sides of the fence, but this film has none of that.  I will say, though, that Mack's script does get some decent chuckles when it comes to Orlando's henchmen, most of whom are absolute imbeciles, but they engage in some delightfully colorful dialogue exchanges that most other genre efforts wouldn't have time for (there are even moments when I wished that the entirety of COFFEE & KAREEM was just about these somewhat amusing losers).  Still, the scripting does most of the other characters no favors whatsoever, especially when Henson is concerned, who's simply been in far too many bad movies lately (PROUD MARY, WHAT MEN WANT, and now this one included) to the point of staining her talent and reputation.  She should be above paycheck roles like this. 

COFFEE & KAREEM has one secret comic weapon: Betty Gilpin.  Here she plays a hilariously vindictive police detective that seems to fanatically get off on making Coffee's office life a living hell.  She has proven here as she did with the recent THE HUNT that she can positively elevate mediocre material with the best of them, and in COFFEE & KAREEM she gives a bonkers, go-for-broke scenery chewing performance that's perhaps the best thing the film has to offer (my favorite moment involves her angrily shooting her pistol in the air at a strip club, afterwards screaming "Go home and work on your marriages!").  Watching this manic cop on overdrive gives COFFEE & KAREEM some unpredictable momentum, but it's simply not enough to save it.  What's interesting is that the director in Michael Dowse previously made a very underrated buddy cop film in last year's STUBER, which involved a hulking police officer teaming up with a lowly Uber driver (coincidentally, it also stared Gilpin).  It's frankly weird to see him go back to the creative genre well with COFFEE & KAREEM, a would-be knee-slappingly funny effort with similar story beats, but worse execution.  STUBER did something relatively smart and funny with its premise involving a pair of ethnic characters, whereas this one takes the laziest black and white approach to the material. 

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