‘Coffee & Kareem’ Film Review: Ed Helms Stars in Messy Action Comedy With Occasional Laughs

Steve Pond

An action-comedy whose default mode is a kind of sustained hysteria, “Coffee & Kareem” starts with buddy-movie tropes, massive amounts of firepower and even more four-letter words. It tosses them in a meat grinder with some wry psychobabble, some social commentary and a dash of family values and throws them against Netflix’s virtual wall to see what sticks.

It’s kind of a mess, a crazy balancing act that flails as often as it connects. But director Michael Dowse, working from a Black Listed script by Shane Mack, has fun with the whole crazy concoction and finds at least one scene-stealing performance that hits just the right note of insanity.

Over the years, Dowse has shown to be adept with mockumentary (the 2002 Sundance hit “FUBAR”) and indie romantic comedy (the affecting Daniel Radcliffe/Zoe Kazan rom-com “The F Word,” released in the U.S. as “What If”). But “Coffee & Kareem” is his second straight movie to focus on odd-couple crimefighters, after last year’s “Stuber” with Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista — and it’s the second whose central relationship sometimes gets drowned out by the chaos around it.

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This time, the mismatched team is James Coffee, an inept Detroit policeman played by Ed Helms with his usual hangdog, goofy everyman aura, and Kareem Manning (Terrence Little Gardenhigh), a 12-year-old wannabe rapper who isn’t satisfied with any sentence unless it contains enough foul language to shock every adult within earshot. Coffee is dating Kareem’s mom (played by Taraji P. Henson), and the kid isn’t at all happy about having a white cop in his life or in his mom’s bedroom. So he tries to hire a gangster to rough up Coffee, whereupon things go nuts.

And you probably know where it’s going from there, right? Coffee and Kareem are thrown together, they bicker and fight and yell, and somewhere along the line — spoiler alert! — they might even learn to cooperate. The destination is inevitable, but less important, than the rocky road to get there.

That road is populated with crooked cops, hapless bystanders and gangsters who aren’t as tough as they seem; it also involves drug dealing, cold-blooded murders and an undercurrent of racial tension that forms an uneasy basis for comedy.

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This is a comedy of excess — of hand grenades serving as punchlines, a kid’s pedophilia accusations played for laughs and a very high body count. Things quickly escalate into chaos and stay there, but they do so in ways that are not quite funny enough to make you forget the implausibilities or the way serious stuff is played for bad jokes.

Helms is a reliable sad sack and Gardenhigh gives as good as he takes. But some of the best moments take place around them, with Henson (don’t mess with her, boys) and particularly with “GLOW” star Betty Gilpin as a police detective.

Gilpin’s character, Detective Watts, starts out as a seemingly one-note, abusive co-worker of Coffee’s, but as the film goes on she gets richer, weirder and sicker, pretty much embodying the insanity that this film could use more of. Gilpin obliterates the line between humor and danger, and in doing so she sticks “Coffee & Kareem” in her back pocket and walks away with it.

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