The buddy cop-comedy used to be a staple of American cinema, but man, has it fallen on hard times. The genre reaches a new low, sadly to the fault of Netflix, with the woefully unfunny, homophobic, and painful Coffee & Kareem. The movie’s bad pun of a title is only the least of its many offenses, which make the 88-minute runtime feel like an extended prison sentence.
The sounds of love-making at the top of Coffee & Kareem produce the startling sight of Ed Helms and Taraji P. Henson rolling under the covers. He plays dorky, recently-demoted traffic cop James Coffee, while she is Vanessa, single mother to foul-mouthed wannabe rapper Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh). Coffee thinks the rebellious 12-year-old is in the house, which ruins the mood of their coital bliss. Little do they know, he’s right, and Kareem is none too happy at learning his mom is knockin’ boots with a cop, much less a lame ass white dude like Coffee.
Kareem’s method of handling this situation is indicative of everything about Coffee & Kareem: it goes unforgivably too far. Rather than just being an a-hole to his mom’s beau, he decides to enlist a local gangster/rapper to kill Coffee. Instead, he ends up on the run with Coffee when they witness a murder, and must stop from being victims themselves.
The buddy-comedy lives and dies on mismatched pairings, but there must still be some comedic chemistry. There’s none between Helms and Gardenhigh, with most of their interactions reduced to Coffee being labeled a “pussy”, or just made fun of for being weak. Helms is perfectly suited for playing this sort of uncool cat; it’s been his thing ever since The Hangover, and when left on his own he’s still good at it. When matched against others on his level, such as David Alan Grier as his mentor/police captain and Betty Gilpin as the force’s top cop, Helms seems more at ease. Gardenhigh’s role mostly amounts to insane levels of braggodocio, delivered at increasing levels of vulgarity and little else.
Shane Mack’s awful script stomps on the racial dynamics at work here. A young black kid, raised by a fierce (and quite fearsome) strong black woman, has a reason to be wary of a white cop entering his life. Not that we should expect a subtle, nuanced exploration of police brutality and racism, but having Kareem threaten phony charges of abuse against Coffee isn’t really the answer. Where’s the punchline? Furthermore, we get added weirdness when Coffee begins trying to explain his painful childhood at the hands of an abusive stepfather. You can imagine Kareem’s reaction, which is to, again, threaten to expose Coffee as a pedophile.
The humor is so misguided that it leaves talented comedic director Michael Dowse (Take Me Home Tonight, Stuber) with little room to maneuver. So the answer he comes up with is to raise the level of violence to absurd levels, almost like a means of distracting you from a story that has nothing going for it. On paper, Coffee & Kareem has so much potential both in front of and behind the camera. And yet, the end result is a bitter and stale cup of joe that no amount of cream can fix.