There’s a better movie buried underneath the many corpses in the crude and confused Netflix comedy Coffee & Kareem, one of their algorithmically assembled weekend options patchworked together from a stack of search terms. It’s an attempt to update a buddy movie formula that flourished most in the 1980s with films like 48 Hours, Turner & Hooch and Tango & Cash but with a half-open eye on the current climate. The most recent theatrical attempt, the Kumail Nanjiani/Dave Bautista-starring Stuber, flopped last summer while Netflix has seen its own, the Mark Wahlberg/Winston Duke vehicle Spenser Confidential, reportedly score huge streaming numbers, despite a small issue of quality.
It’s a platform that then makes a lot more sense for a throwback such as this with Stuber director Michael Dowse returning to try his luck again within similar territory, in extremely quick succession. It’s based on a script from the first-time writer Shane Mack, one that attracted enough attention in 2014 to be included on the Black List, an annual roundup of the best unproduced screenplays doing the rounds. There’s just about enough here to see why with Mack’s knack for comedy, both broad and weirdly specific, proving that at the very least he’d make a solid inclusion in any sitcom writers room. His dialogue is overstuffed with quips but for every one that lands, about five others tank, with an overreliance on lewd one-liners.
In the first 15 minutes we’re promised something far more entertaining than what the following 70 minutes deliver. Incompetent cop John Coffee (Ed Helms) is dating single mother Vanessa (Taraji P Henson), much to the annoyance of her son Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh), who is forced to spend time with him after school one day. In a set of circumstances that would seem far-fetched even if the film were animated and populated by talking animals, the two end up on the run from some “bad guys” after the same criminal who escaped from Coffee’s custody is also approached by Kareem to beat Coffee up. The pair have to then get along etc, etc.
The lack of certification on Netflix content and any restrictions that would then come with it has meant that quite often, films or shows that would otherwise be tailored for a wide PG-13 audience are given a free pass to go hard R. It can be jarring to suddenly hear the word cunt in an otherwise tame romantic comedy and in Coffee & Kareem, a silly kids movie set-up is matched with an overwhelmingly aggressive crudeness as every opportunity for puerile jokes about shit, dicks, asses and rape are rolled out until any shock value has been completely beaten to a pulp. The novelty of watching a 12-year-old curse was tested in last year’s Good Boys, a joke that isn’t unfunny the first time or maybe even the second but when it becomes a lazy substitute for, say, an actual witticism soon starts to grow dull.
It’s a strange movie that can seem mildly interested in tackling bigger issues before swiftly backing down. Any contemporary comedy about the dynamic between a white cop and a black boy can’t avoid the uncomfortable reality that we often associate with such a pairing and Mack’s script highlights the distrust that Kareem understandably has for Coffee. But its treatment feels a bit too flip for such an uneasy subject and elsewhere Mack relies on tired stereotype subversions such as the black henchmen who are, twist, surprisingly sensitive and the black stripper who is, twist, surprisingly academically ambitious, that feel patronising at best. There’s also a confused attempt to make some sort of comment on the gay panic humour that often pervades films such as this but Mack’s long-running joke, that to scare men away you have to pretend to be aggressively gay, isn’t smartly employed enough for it to work as satire and, as such, just comes off as a bit questionable.
For a film centred on the relationship between two male characters, it’s actually the women who end up stealing the show, with Henson, who really deserves so much better than this, proving to be an energetic comic presence once again, giving far more than her thankless role requires and Betty Gilpin, as Coffee’s cop nemesis, bringing a solid 80% of the film’s funniest moments. Gilpin, excellent on Glow, the best thing about toothless Trump America satire The Hunt and hysterical on chatshows, is having so much fun on screen that I started to crave whatever she was on, which would make the film’s mess of a final act that much more palatable.
Barely 90 minutes and barely memorable enough to stay in one’s mind for any longer, Coffee & Kareem is truly decaf entertainment.
Coffee & Kareem is available on Netflix now