For anyone who hasn’t gotten their fill of Betty Gilpin maniacally screaming while brandishing a deadly weapon this year — and, no, even with the actress’ outstanding performance in “The Hunt” already available to watch in your own home, you have not yet gotten your fill — Michael Dowse’s uneven “Coffee & Kareem” at least offers that in heady doses. The “Stuber” and “Goon” filmmaker has decamped for Netflix for his latest feature, a raunchy, foul-mouthed buddy comedy about mismatched maybe-pals that never quite lives up to its caffeine-infused title.
Diverting enough at just under 90 minutes, “Coffee & Kareem” likely won’t do for the R-rated comedy (well, presumably R-rated, since the streaming world isn’t beholden to the MPA) that other Netflix offerings have done for the rom-com, but a strong finale helps end thing things on a high point. And while the film is understandably concerned with its titular characters — Ed Helms as straight-edge Detroit cop James Coffee, young star Terrence Little Gardenhigh as his plucky pre-teen foil Kareem — its real standouts are supporting talents like Gilpin and Taraji P. Henson, who end up holding together a film that perhaps should have focused on them instead (cutesy title to come).
Coffee and Kareem are thrown initially together thanks to domestic entanglements, but their fraught bond soon hits the road for some literally criminal-level high jinks. Coffee is dating Kareem’s beloved mother Vanessa (Henson), and the profanity-loving middle schooler isn’t at all interested in letting the pair’s romance continue to blossom (and, given his panache for getting into pickles at school, it seems obvious the kid is capable of doing pretty much anything to get what he wants). Coffee’s problems extend far beyond a pissed-off kiddo, however, because he’s recently biffed a high-profile drug case, a very public embarrassment that has put him the crosshairs of both the public and a fellow detective who already hates his guts (Gilpin, giving two hundred percent in an otherwise small-scale role).
When Kareem gets mixed up with Coffee’s professional woes while attracting the attention of the bad-guy-who-got-away (RonReaco Lee, adding some depth to a surprisingly tricky role), the pair must team up to clear Coffee’s name, keep Kareem safe, and get Vanessa out of a mess she knows nothing about. For all its easy comedic setups, the film seems more Invested in dropping F-bombs and unfurling eye-popping turns of phrase — from the mouth of a child! good heavens! — than in actually crafting anything truly outrageous and fresh as its cast of characters zips around Detroit over the course of one messy evening.
Not that “Coffee & Kareem” doesn’t offer up a handful of inspired gags — from a throwaway joke about Ja Rule that targets Andrew Bachelor’s (aka King Bach) amusingly dim bad guy sidekick to a final sequence that hints at the nutty antics that could have populated the entire film — but it takes nearly an hour to get into anything that extends beyond crude, unimaginative table-setting. There’s no question of what will happen as the film unfolds, but the paths it takes to get there are so rote as to be annoying, and even with a comedy-friendly running time, there’s so much sag to the proceedings that it feels nearly twice as long in practice.
“Coffee & Kareem” does still find the space to spotlight a stuffed supporting cast, including full-throttle performances from both Gilpin as Coffee’s unhinged nemesis (to say she makes a meal of a thin role is to understate her ability to transform any role into her firecracker likeness) and Henson as the one woman who can whip the title characters into shape. Henson is cast as something of a straight man to ditzy Coffee and smartass Kareem, which makes her inevitable butt-kicking breakdown all the more satisfying, an amusing combination of her character’s can-do attitude and Henson’s ability to make any role hit a high note.
It’s no surprise that once all of these characters are shoved together into a literal tinderbox, sparks start flying, the first and best of the film. Too bad then it takes the bulk of the film’s laborious narrative to get there, only hinting at some of the energy that could have pushed the film to zippier amusement. Instead, “Coffee and Kareem” is stuck in decaf mode.
“Coffee & Kareem” is available to stream on Netflix starting today, Friday, April 3.