A movie featuring a dismembered hand being stuffed into a character’s mouth might signal a tone of ridiculous violence early on, rather than start with relatively sitcom-y domestic troubles. Coffee & Kareem is an exception. In Netflix’s new buddy comedy, the team-up of a white cop and an African American boy seesaws between that of kid-friendly comedies such as My Spy or Kindergarten Cop with more adult movies like Pineapple Express or This Is the End. For the most part, however, director Michael Dowse (Goon) and screenwriter Shane Mack manage it, throwing so much at the wall that some of it has to stick.
Initially, it’s disorienting. Adult-kid team-up movies are typically targeted at kids — how cool, to follow an adult and watch them do their action-packed job, and maybe even learn a few lessons about friendship along the way! By contrast, Coffee & Kareem is rated MA, packed with profanity and vulgarity, and, soon enough, some very gory violence that feels at odds with the lighthearted humor that runs through the film. The jokes include complaints about the keto diet and gangsters dealing with bullying; the goriest scenes have ears getting cut off and bodies being blown apart. The two tones don’t really mesh.
The film’s two central characters, Officer Coffee (Ed Helms) and young Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh) don’t get along. Coffee is in a relationship with Kareem’s mother Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson), and Kareem, understandably, isn’t having it. Tipped off by a gangster hoping to make some young recruits, Kareem asks a group of local criminals to frighten Coffee into leaving Vanessa. Unfortunately, he ends up walking in on the murder of another police officer, and he and Coffee are forced to go on the run as corrupt cops frame them for the killing.
Most of Kareem’s schtick is swearing way more than any child is supposed to, waxing poetic on male genitalia and his supposed sexual prowess. Coffee is the straight man, a slightly toned-down version of Helms’ character on The Office. Luckily, Dowse and Mack are aware of how it looks to pair them together, and accordingly address the strange race dynamics explicitly. Vanessa has to deal with both her son and a co-worker judging her for dating a (not quite well-to-do) white man to Kareem’s disbelief in both the fact that his mother would date a cop, and that Coffee would make the “not all cops” argument. In another great sequence, a black man, whose car Coffee commandeers, calls out the optics of white cop pulling a gun on him when he resists giving up his keys, as well as protesting that he’s worn a v-neck sweater in an attempt to fit into a mostly-white neighborhood.
The disparate elements of Coffee & Kareem — “a kid swearing is funny” and “let’s hide something from mom” to “a cop gets graphically tortured” — aren’t mutually exclusive, but the transitions aren’t handled so smoothly. It’s not totally clear until later in the film that it’s meant more for adults than for a younger audience, and Helms and Gardenhigh’s performances don’t really seem to swing one way or the other — with the exception of how much cursing Gardenhigh is given to do. It ends up falling on Betty Gilpin’s shoulders to really take the movie home.
Gilpin, as a detective who mercilessly bullies Coffee, brings a manic energy to the movie that helps define a singular, totally gonzo tone by the halfway point. She can flip between guns blazing to crying over Nancy Meyers movies in a single scene, and as the film’s intensity starts to match hers, and gives up most pretense of being totally kid-friendly, it solidifies. Mack’s script is ultimately very funny (apart from several jokes about pedophilia and a late gag playing on macho posturing that isn’t as self-aware about gay panic as it thinks it is), while Helms and Gardenhigh’s performances are solid enough to keep things enjoyable until the movie finds its feet.
All in all, Coffee & Kareem is the kind of movie that, in an age before Netflix, a youngster of Kareem’s age might have come across on TV and thought was edgy for all its profanity and blood. In the light of day — or rather, streaming — it’s not quite as extreme, but its uneven start isn’t enough to make it a total miss. The mash-up of tones is a tough one, as is the film’s central pairing, but it works just well enough.
Coffee & Kareem is streaming on Netflix now.
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