Netflix's Outrageous Action Comedy 'Coffee & Kareem' Can't Find the Right Balance

coffee and kareem
Justina Mintz/Netflix

When Ed Helms' characters get flustered or annoyed, which happens often because the actor specializes in playing easily overwhelmed dorks and hyper-anxious authority figures, they tend to say and do things they quickly regret. Where Will Ferrell and Steve Carell often play arrogant man-children, the type of blustery middle-managers and upper-class oafs blessed with absolute certainty about their own actions, Helms is a more outwardly neurotic comedian. As the chatty dentist Stu in the three movies in The Hangover series, he was often the voice of reason amidst the chaos. He's a goof, you see, but he's trying to be better. 

Coffee & Kareem, the new Netflix action comedy that Helms both produced and stars in, isn't really trying to be anything other than a pile-up of movies you've seen before. Helms plays Officer James Coffee, a 40-something Detroit policeman who wants to protect and serve his community but has a tendency to bungle simple tasks while on the job. He's dating Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson), a healthcare worker with an overprotective 12-year-old son. His name is Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh), justifying the slightly awkward pun of a title. There's a little Kindergarten Cop, a dash of The Heat, and a hint of those cheesy family comedies about step dads, like the 1995 Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas vehicle Man of the House. It's easy to see how the Netflix algorithm will serve this one up to a wide range of bored viewers. 

How does Coffee & Kareem attempt to distinguish itself from the movies it's clearly inspired by? Mostly by having Kareem, a kid who hates Helms' Coffee so much that he tries to arrange for him to be beaten by a local drug dealer, deliver a number of lines clearly meant to shock and bewilder. Within the first 30 minutes, he jokes about the length of his penis, raps about making someone's "pussy numb," and makes a Johnny Cochran reference that feels so weirdly dated that Coffee immediately calls out the sheer unlikeliness of it being said. There's a lot of that type of "edgy" verbal comedy in the movie, lines of dialogue that approach a potentially offensive idea, particularly around race and law enforcement, and then double back on themselves in an effort to deflect or deflate. The effect is numbing after a while. 

As the mechanics of the plot grind along -- Coffee and Kareem find themselves "on the run" after the two witness the murder of a crooked cop and have to clear Coffee's name -- the two sworn enemies start to develop a repartee. Or, more accurately, Kareem makes a series of crude jokes about rape and child sex abuse while Coffee looks uncomfortable, wincing and grimacing with each line. Where last year's Good Boys at least made an effort to play up the occasional moments of naiveté shared between its young characters, the script for Coffee & Kareem, credited to Shane Mack, frequently goes in the opposite direction with wobbly results. Eventually, Kareem offers Coffee a tutorial on shit-talking that centers around being "gay" and feels like an awkward riff from an old Judd Apatow movie. Again, it's mostly just tiring. 

coffee and kareem
Justina Mintz/Netflix

There are bright spots: GLOW's Betty Gilpin pops up as a hot-shot cop in Coffee's division and she brings some needed spark to the end of the movie, particularly once it shifts into gun-firing, grenade-throwing, car-chasing action mode. At one point, she describes Helms's character as a "man who jerks off to Glen Close," one of the few pop culture gags that actually lands. Like in this year's The Hunt, Gilpin is the best part of an otherwise largely unremarkable and irritating movie, bringing intensity and passion to a perhaps over-engineered premise. Similarly, Gardenhigh, tasked with selling all the Kids Say the Darndest Things one-liners that can't really compete with what you'd find in the stranger corners of TikTok or YouTube, finds some fun moments to play off Helms. 

The larger problem is this: Who wants this movie? Michael Dowse, the filmmaker behind Coffee and Kareem, also directed last year's major studio release Stuber, another mismatched partner action comedy with a pun-adjacent name. (His name is Stu and he drives… you get it.) Despite my appreciation of former professional wrestler Dave Bautista's gruff screen presence and vaguely positive feelings towards the action comedy genre, I never saw Stuber, which looked terrible, and not too many other movie-goers did either. Since it's available on Netflix in a moment when people are desperate for any type of diversion, one assumes more viewers will give Coffee & Kareem a chance. That's a "win" for Netflix, but not for the people stuck watching it.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.