'Coffee and Kareem': A Crime Against Comedy

What’s wrong with a rowdy raunchfest to raise your spirits in a shutdown world? Nothing really, except everything is stupefyingly wrong with Coffee and Kareem, a DOA, dysfunctional family farce with an overeager cast — led by Ed Helms, Taraji P. Henson, and Betty Gilpin — who strain so hard for laughs it makes you think director Michael Dowse was holding a gun to their heads. Dowse had a few good innings on screen with Goon and It’s All Gone Pete Tong, but in Coffee and Kareem he’s back at the bottom he scraped with FUBAR, Take Me Home Tonight, and Stuber.

It doesn’t help that screenwriter Shane Mack seems to construct his script entirely out of buddy-flick clichés in telling the tale of “a skinny white cop and an opposite-of-skinny black kid.” They’d be bumbling Detroit PD officer James Coffee (Helms) and 12-year-old Kareem Manning (Terrence Little Gardenhigh), a wannabe rapper who talks like a shock jock and vows vengeance when he catches his widowed mom Vanessa (Henson) and Coffee having “old people sex.” Kareem is so pissed, he offers his allowance to a local drug gangbanger to take Coffee out.

If that sounds extreme, you ain’t heard nothing yet. Given to homophobic jokes about gay aggression and child rape, Kareem rains down a world of threats on Coffee: “I’ll tell people you forced-fed me with muscle relaxers to loosen up my asshole.” Anybody else thinking the Cornholio gags on Beavis and Butthead now sound quaint? The situation doesn’t improve when Coffee takes Kareem to a strip club for a bonding session. “About two weeks ago I shot my first load,” Kareem tells Coffee, helpfully explicating “that means I blew my nose out of my dick.”

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Get the picture? With young Gardenhigh forced to spew constant profanity, it’s hard to evaluate his performance without wondering, where was Child Protective Services? Somehow Kareem stops wanting to kill Coffee long enough to help the lovesick cop win his mom’s heart. “You can’t reason with a mad black woman,” instructs Kareem, “there’s six Tyler Perry movies about that shit.” Aside from the unexpected reveal that Kareem is a cineaste, the kid shocks Coffee by promising to help him prove that he’s being framed for killing another cop. This somehow involves clumsily staged cop-car chases around Detroit, which generate enough noise to obliterate the lousy dialogue. For this our thanks.

Helms, a master jester on The Office, seems to have forgotten everything he’s ever learned about comic timing to judge by fiasco. Since Coffee and Kareem also credits Helms as a producer, he has only himself to blame. Condolences to Henson, so good in Hidden Figures, TV’s Empire (yay, Cookie!), and an Oscar-nominee as Brad Pitt’s mother in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, whose screen time is basically limited to dropping f-bombs and telling Kareem to watch his language. And poor Gilpin, a deserved Emmy-nominee for the wresting comedy GLOW, is trapped in the nuance-free, gender-bashing role of a DPD ballbuster. These performers, including the African African actors cast as drug dealers and killers, should fire their agents at once. Heed the words of a villain who warns his target: “You’ll end up with your head in a toilet.” That pretty much sums up the experience of watching Coffee and Kareem.

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