Netflix’s latest buddy cop comedy is a dated, hateful mess that doesn’t deserve the screentime.
The latest case of algorithm cinema, Michael Dowse’s horrendous Netflix buddy cop feature Coffee & Kareem is a cobbled-together hodgepodge of cutting room floor jokes from early 2000s Judd Apatow rip-offs, incoherent carnage from imaginary VOD Bad Boys sequels, and the racial and sexual politics of a Cops rerun.
A photocopy of last year’s ugly but intermittently charming odd couple rideshare comedy, Stuber (a film that already felt wildly out of step with the theatrical, let alone social climate of the moment), Dowse’s latest is another arms race of male insecurity as an underestimated hero (Ed Helms) contends with a brash baby-faced opposition (talented but wasted newcomer Terrence Little Gardenhigh).
James Coffee (Helms) is a bootlicking straight edge cop who’s regularly putting himself in embarrassing situations, earning the relentless bullying of his all-star colleague, Detective Watts (Betty Gilpin, in easily one of the worst and most aggressively misogynistic performances of the year) and the consternation of his boss, Captain Hill (David Alan Grier). His one saving grace is his relationship with Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson, who steals the movie in less than three scenes), a nurse who’s connected at the hip to her potty-mouthed, possessive son, Kareem.
Inevitably, Coffee and Kareem collide as Helms tries his best officer friendly shtick while Kareem schemes to hire local rapper/gangster Orlando Johnson (RonReaco Lee) to kill Coffee and ensure that his mom won’t be dating a dweeby cop. Even more inevitably, Kareem soon after bears witness to Orlando and some amateur goons (Andrew Bachelor and William ‘Big Sleeps’ Stewart) executing a cop. And so it goes as Kareem and Coffee go on the run from gangsters and uncover an extremely milquetoast conspiracy.
To say more would constitute spoilers, but Coffee & Kareem is so slack with its pacing and plotting that the film itself seems to know that the audience is probably looking down at their phone anyway. That might be fine if Coffee & Kareem had a higher joke success rate, but despite the gatling gun delivery of its one-liners, it lands less than a quarter of those gags without dive bombing.
The best moments go to the aforementioned gangsters who are hammering home the well-tread trope of doofy but menacing gangsters, who bring a well needed shot of adrenaline and urgency to their jokes whether they’re talking about stealing a plate of cornbread when they break into a house or moaning about misunderstanding directions after horrifically messing up a situation.
But the lion’s share of jokes are less these Key & Peele one-liners than overwhelming gay panic. It feels crazy to say that a film in 2020 is wall-to-wall gay panic played straight, but Coffee & Kareem is obsessed with penises and gay sex in a way that goes so beyond the “no homo” phobia that culture has thankfully mostly outgrown.
Coffee & Kareem is so slack with its pacing and plotting that the film itself seems to know that the audience is probably looking down at their phone anyway.
Instead, over and over, a key aspect of how Kareem intimidates people is with graphic descriptions of gay sex, which are meant to so disgust the receiving party that they leave him alone. Once, that would be bizarre but huge sections of the film are devoted to this trick including a scene where Coffee imitates Kareem and becomes too involved to the point of being affectionate. It’s a jaw-dropping scene that moves beyond the fratty casual homophobia spattered across early ‘00s comedies and feels vile in its specificity and scope in the context of the film.
Henson does get offered a lacerating line delivery immediately after this scene that could be a takedown of the entire film but even beyond these breathtakingly tone deaf scenes, Coffee & Kareem is mired in bad action movie tropes. Dowse has previously found a brutal comedy in violence in things like Goon, but he flounders here with scene after scene of gratuitous violence. The latter half of the film is just a lazy routine as dozens of anonymous villains unload clips into other anonymous people.
Stuber wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of action filmmaking, but by relying on the talents of Dave Bautista and Indonesian star Iko Uwais, there was a genuine thrill to the combat even when it was seemingly cut together in a food processor. Here, it’s just splattery violence and mayhem that pyrrhically counts as a climax. We all deserve better.
Coffee & Kareem is currently streaming on Netflix.