Sometimes when two high-concept comedy hooks are particularly worn out, filmmakers try to strengthen them by linking them together. Coffee & Kareem takes this strategy to a chaotic extreme. It’s sort of a domestic comedy about a dorky white guy named James Coffee (Ed Helms) who is forced to make nice with Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh), the unruly 12-year-old son of his girlfriend, Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson). Vanessa is constantly asked why she’s dating, well, a dorky white guy—especially one without much money, multiple people clarify—and it’s important to both her and Coffee that Kareem doesn’t object to their potential union. But Coffee is also a police officer, so when Kareem witnesses a murder and Coffee gets framed for it, their conflict morphs into a mismatched action-comedy dynamic as they bumble through a world of drug deals and dirty cops. In a twist on the tough-cop-vexed-by-a-kid formula, Coffee is vaguely incompetent and easily flustered while Kareem is foulmouthed and streetwise, giving his elder tips on how to intimidate bad guys.
Basically, Ed Helms is placed in wacky comic contrast with everyone: He’s dorkier than Henson, less scheming than Gardenhigh, and meeker than Betty Gilpin, playing Coffee’s brassy coworker Detective Watts. If that sounds straightforward, Coffee & Kareem makes a real mess at its own intersections, with unnecessary complications and bizarre excuses. The murder entanglement happens because Kareem, intent on punishing Coffee for dating Vanessa, decides to lure his would-be stepdad into the clutches of local musician and drug dealer Orlando Johnson (RonReaco Lee), who Kareem recognizes from social media and thinks will issue savage beatings for hire. There are no real story points or even many gags about Orlando being an Instagram-famous aspiring rapper; it’s apparently a plot contrivance so Kareem will know who Orlando is, itself an unnecessary detail that never pays off. The whole movie feels like it follows the old murder-mystery maxim of plotting backwards from the solution, only it’s not a mystery, and works backward in a blind rush.
Bad plotting would be relegated to the realm of incidental if Coffee & Kareem were funnier—isn’t that always the way? Unfortunately, the movie spends a lot of time handing Helms underlined jokes, which he proceeds to underline again with his why-did-I-just-say-that delivery. The other actors fare better, and often keep the movie from falling apart entirely. Gardenhigh is a confident kid performer, even if the filmmakers are more interested in giving him running jokes about child-rape accusations than they are in figuring out his character’s actual level of sophistication. (If they know a 12-year-old in fifth grade would have been held back once or twice, they don’t do much to acknowledge it.) Gilpin’s performance begins with an atrocious bit of the movie’s favored brash insult comedy, then becomes genuinely and hilariously unhinged by the finale. Until then, the funniest stuff is on the margins: Orlando runs with a couple of lackeys (Andrew Bachelor and William “Bigsleeps” Stewart), and as they chase after Coffee and Kareem, the trio has trouble staying on the same page, squabbling about the effectiveness of cutting off a hostage’s ear or whether it’s permissible to raid food from a house they’re ransacking.
Alas, these are only diversions from antic scenes where the movie fancies itself an action comedy. Director Michael Dowse doesn’t go crazy with the camera-shaking like he did in last year’s Stuber, and there’s one solid bit of car-chase parody where both parties get stuck in a traffic circle and become confused about who’s chasing who. All together, it’s enough to keep Coffee & Kareem from representing the worst of its genre. But these flip comedies that try to make fun of clichés like car chases, shoot-outs, and drug deals gone wrong rarely go beyond blithe commentary about how crazy or stupid it all is. It’s indifference masquerading as irreverence, as pointless a gesture as this movie ending with a faux-retro freeze-frame and song cue. Do the people who made Coffee & Kareem think that it’s a refreshing throwback? How can they not know that these kinds of movies happen all the time, and sometimes even make sense?