Directed by Michael Dowse
Starring Ed Helms, Terrence Little Gardenhigh, Taraji P. Henson
On a flight home from the States last December—in other words, a lifetime ago—I happened to catch Stuber, the buddy comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista which DOA’d at the box office the previous August. It doesn’t take a genius to see why: After an unexpectedly somber opening which sees a police officer dying in the line of duty, the film struggles to nail down its tone. Between Bautista’s visually impaired cop bent on revenge and Nanjiani’s cowering, person-of-color Über driver, you can feel Stuber yearning to push the envelope, but finding its reckless aspirations stymied by political correctness.
It’s ironic, then, to find that Netflix—which, theoretically, has a further and deeper reach than movies—would be the platform by which Michael Dowse can finally let loose. Perhaps buoyed by high viewing numbers for Spenser Confidential, another buddy comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Winston Duke, Netflix dropped Dowse’s next effort, Coffee & Kareem, in a hurry.
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And while at first glance, Coffee & Kareem looks discouragingly like it was cobbled together out of an algorithm of highly searched key words, if you give it a chance you’ll find a directing and screenwriting tandem given free rein to be as hilariously filthy as they can be.
Ed Helms, who has made a career out of playing well-meaning but clueless white guys, plays a woefully incompetent cop named Coffee, who botches the high-profile arrest of a former hip hop star/Detroit drug kingpin named Orlando (RonReaco Lee) on the same day that his girlfriend (Empire’s Taraji P. Henson) asks him to fetch her son Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh) from school for a little bonding time. The different ingredient in this buddy comedy’s formula is 12-year-old Kareem: Gardenhigh is a little, dreadlocked gangsta who looks like what would happen if you grafted Craig Robinson’s head onto a pudgy tweener’s body.
Kareem also has a mouth like a sewer, and the invectives come spewing out whenever he contemplates the idea of having a policeman for a stepdad. Kareem wants to put out a hit on Coffee to scare him away from the homestead; by some improbable coincidence, the hitman he plans to hire happens to be a thug working under Orlando.
If you can get past that knotty setup, you’ll find that Coffee & Kareem’s action-filled comedy zips along. The script by first-time writer Shane Mack earned the distinction in 2014 of being included in the Black List, a roster of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays, and Mack’s heat-seeking humor is the reason why: It’s broad enough to be set firmly within genre conventions, yet oddly specific in its details. There are gun-wielding thugs who are self-aware enough to bemoan keto diets. There are strippers with degrees in biology. And of course there are the dirty cops—but here, they seem to be more than just clichés because they’re also having manic fun. A running gag has Mack addressing the gay panic simmering under the surface of many buddy comedies, culminating in an interrogation scene that pushes the joke to its absurd conclusion.
Coffee & Kareem, strangely enough, gets a lot of its juice not from its central duo, but from its supporting females. Taraji P. Henson displays her crack comic timing, wielding her lines like a whip; Betty Gilpin, playing Coffee’s nemesis Detective Watts, unleashes all the id that she can only intermittently flash as GLOW’s Debbie Egan. Ultimately, the demands of the action-comedy genre trap Coffee & Kareem into an unconvincing feel-good resolution, but if you’re going to be cooped up this quarantine, it may as well be with this filthy, belly laugh-inducing crew.
Coffee & Kareem is currently streaming on Netflix.
Photographs from Netflix