In the new Netflix action comedy “Coffee and Kareem,” Ed Helms is Coffee — James Coffee, a beleaguered Detroit cop, in love with Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson), the single mother of bright 11-year-old Kareem, who has way too much attitude for a boy his age.
Kareem (newcomer Terrence Little Gardenhigh) wants to end his mom’s affair with Coffee by eliminating him — a situation that ultimately involves guns, drugs, extreme violence and institutional corruption on a major scale. And it’s all played, mostly, for laughs.
“Just the story and the script was such a page turner, I instantly loved it and was laughing my ass off,” Helms, 46, said.
“I read a lot of funny scripts that just aren’t right for me. But this, I’m drawn to characters who are struggling to do better.
“Whether it’s finding their own backbone or inner courage or a better companion, just someone striving to be better is always fascinating to me. That’s what I think this movie is in its heart.”
The Odd Couple aspect of unlikely allies Coffee and Kareem teaming up against a gang of drug-running, murderous thugs begins, well, badly.
“Officer Coffee’s not great at relationships, at being a cop and certainly not great at dealing with a kid in the mix, his potential stepson,” Helms said.
“But he has a good heart and wants to be good at all these things. The movie is a long arc at him getting some self-actualization. I love that!”
There were on-set discussions about whether Coffee is really a most incompetent cop or just a nice guy in (many) bad situations.
“He’s definitely not a well-liked cop within the Detroit PD. I do think he gets sabotaged a bunch,” Helms said. “He’s struggling because he is basically in a corrupt police environment — but he’s not corrupt. He’s trying to play by (the) rules but gets kicked around a lot.”
Coffee’s nemesis on the force is his gleefully nasty superior, played with welcome ferocity by Betty Gilpin of the currently streaming “The Hunt.”
“Gilpin is unbelievable. I’m in awe of Betty Gilpin,” Helms professed. “The way her brain works coming up with jokes and insults, she’s like Don Rickles. It just comes out of her.
“There was a perfect dynamic there with her and Coffee who is such a sweet guy and she’s such a bully. When he tries to match her level of meanness, he just comes off as an idiot.
“We improvised a ton in those scenes,” he noted.
(“Coffee and Kareem” is available on Netflix Friday.)