There’s something strangely charming about the uniquely jarring tonal blend of 2020’s Coffee & Kareem. Nothing about the film feels like it should work – at least not this well. Changing a single ingredient in a tried and true formula often affects the entire recipe. But the grounds were simple: keep everything else the same and let’s see what happens. Largely, that’s what the filmmakers of this polarizing Netflix original movie do. They throw a ton of genre cliches into a buddy-cop movie, but replace one of the officers with a belligerent little kid and watch the magic happen.
Personally, I expected the worst. Yet, somehow, the outcome manages to be even better than the premise suggests.
The story follows a bumbling police officer, James Coffee (Ed Helms), who’s dating Vanessa Manning (Taraji P. Henson), a nurse with a foul-mouthed 12-year-old son named Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh). He’s very protective of his mother, but is constantly getting into trouble at school for cutting class and vulgarly hitting on his teachers. He romanticizes the idea of someday becoming a felon-turned-rapper just like his hero Orlando Johnson (RonReaco Lee).
Orlando has just been busted on drug trafficking charges, but manages to escape from James’ cop car. The entire police force mocks the officer and he’s demoted to traffic duty. After finding out about his mother’s relationship with James, Kareem has the idea of tracking down Orlando to hire him to rough up his mom’s boyfriend. But when the situation goes terribly wrong, both James and Kareem end up accidentally exposing a secret network of corrupt cops and now have to put aside their differences (kinda) to bring down the bad guys.
Coffee & Kareem is pretty darn entertaining as an action film, but where it really succeeds is in its knack for comedy. Per my odd sense of humor, it made me laugh. A lot. The jokes are well thought-out and the script by Shane Mack (his first feature film) squeezes every last ounce of humor from each scenario.
I also didn’t expect to be constantly kept on my toes with how the plot would play out. Director Michael Dowse (Goon, Stuber) takes us on an adventure through a fun sequence of events that keeps on surprising us. Despite dealing with a premise influenced by genre cliches, the story flows very naturally and at a kinetic pace.
The plot is nearly pristine, except for one minor hiccup. When we approach the climax, the film can’t seem to avoid that one frustrating trope where everyone wrongfully turns against the protagonist because of an unfair misunderstanding. Sadly, the film falls into this familiar trap and we get plenty of forced, unnecessary drama.
Early on, especially, the digs at James are pretty mean-spirited and you really want to see Kareem get his comeuppance (which never happens), but the duo’s chemistry is admittedly good. At the same time, you really wish the characters would just communicate with each other more.
Helms is the perfect incompetent dweeb. He’s played it often throughout his career, and he’s believable in the role. But there are moments in this movie where he’s frustratingly passive. His character has been a cop for fifteen years, yet acts like he’s never had a second of training in his life. The film fails to give his character much depth outside of the overused archetype. And when it tries to give him more than that, we’re left with something we’re unable to really pin down.
The standout performances come from the cast of villains, including Lee as Orlando, and his cronies played by Andrew “King Bach” Bachelor and William “Big Sleeps” Stewart (I didn’t give them these nicknames). The trio has a hilariously dynamic rapport, led by Lee’s often brilliant straight man persona.
At the very least, Coffee & Kareem is a decently effective commentary on media sensationalism which doesn’t mind becoming a little offensive in the process–much welcomed in this day and age. Although you wish that same clarity were also focused on making sure James received poetic justice against this bratty kid. Yet, Kareem’s mother just keeps on wagging her finger at her son, hardly even giving him a tsk-tsk, getting upset with James instead. I mean, the kid could’ve gotten James murdered. He also tells countless lies to his mother, which he never fesses up to, and is the sole reason why everyone is in this mess to begin with. His lack of punishment is never justified.
Seemingly torn between crude buddy cop comedy and a kids movie, Coffee & Kareem still manages to find its groove without becoming awkward and overstuffed. Mostly because it does, in fact, commit to one side over the other. On the surface, it may appear to possess a childlike wonder and innocence, but it actually never promises any of that. In fact, the film’s subversion of expectations helps make it so enjoyable.
There are movies I like that others hate – and I can usually understand the criticism to some degree – but Coffee & Kareem is actually good enough, despite some flaws, that it deserves a closer look. While it certainly exploits several proven formulas, it’s a film that never tries to be anything other than what it is. The jokes never try too hard, and most manage to hit their target – unlike virtually all post-Judd Apatow era comedies.