When I was nine years old, I saw a movie called Cop and a Half starring Burt Reynolds as a cop who teams up with a young black boy (Norman D. Golden II) to solve a murder. It’s a better movie than you probably remember, and one I liked quite a bit as a kid. Michael Dowse‘s new Netflix movie Coffee & Kareem is cut from the same crime comedy cloth, but its target audience is decidedly different. Cop and a Half was rated PG and aimed at families, whereas Coffee & Kareem is very much an R-rated affair, for better and worse. At just over 80 minutes, it’s worth a look for those desperately seeking a few laughs in these dark times — just keep your expectations in check, because high comedy this is not.
Ed Helms stars as James Coffee, a middling police officer who’s in love with his girlfriend, Vanessa Manning (Taraji P. Henson). Vanessa is a single mother whose 12-year-old son Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh) is a foul-mouthed class clown who’s more concerned with getting laughs than good grades. When Kareem accidentally sees Officer Coffee having sex with his mother, he sets out to ruin their relationship. A friend puts Kareem in touch with some dangerous drug dealers he hopes can take of Coffee, but when Kareem witnesses them murder a cop, he and Coffee are forced to go on the run from both the dealers and the law.
With films like Stuber and Goon on his resume, Dowse has proven himself an above-average action-comedy director, and he does what he can to liven up the major set pieces here, though it’s clear that the film was made on a modest budget. But you’re likely not watching for John Wick-level shootouts or cool car chases or grand explosions. The reason you watch a movie like Coffee & Kareem is for a few laughs, and on that front, the film mostly delivers, though as with Cop and a Half, it’ll likely play better the younger you are.
The screenplay from newcomer Shane Mack boasts a few really funny lines, including one about Tyler Perry movies and another about Glenn Close, and there are some clever sight gags as well, such as when the chubby Kareem stuffs an entire plate of cornbread into his backpack, just in case, since he doesn’t know how long they’ll be on the run for. The film also gets decent mileage out of the racial disparity between Coffee and Kareem, as the young boy is suspicious of white people — especially cops. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of juvenile dick jokes, and Kareem’s wiseass shtick can only go so far before becoming obnoxious.
Helms is a strong fit for this kind of role, but this isn’t the Cop and a Half dynamic. He’s not gruff and tough like Burt Reynolds. Coffee is one of those nice guys who always manage to finish last. He wants to win over Kareem and prove to the boy that he loves his mother, and when push comes to shove, Coffee is willing to lay his life on the line to be part of their family. In addition to playing hopeful stepdad well, Helms also makes for a good punching bag among his fellow officers. Meanwhile, Gardenhigh acquits himself nicely in his first feature, conveying Kareem’s insecurity beneath his bravado, and subtly selling the inevitable moment when Kareem begins to care about Coffee.
The supporting cast includes Betty Gilpin as Helms’ ruthless rival in the department, and David Alan Grier (wasted in a small role) as their commanding officer, while RonReaco Lee and Andrew Bachelor play the dealers, with Bachelor a clear standout among that quartet. Henson does what she can, but the script is literally thin, which helps the film’s pacing to the detriment of its character development, and it’s Vanessa that suffers the most in that regard.
Coffee & Kareem is short and sweet, and though it may not be as good as Dowse’s past action-comedies, it’s worth a watch given the dearth of new movies and its 80-minute runtime. It will, as they say, do in a pinch, especially for Netflix subscribers who are getting burned out on true crime documentaries right about now. I’d probably give this a C+ under normal circumstances, but since this film put a smile on my face in the middle of a pandemic, I’m giving Kareem extra credit.