Silver Screen: Keanu ***1/2
Comedy duo Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key make their debut as feature film stars in Keanu. It’s a transition many sketch comedians have attempted— and more than a few have failed.
There’s good reason to have faith in the two-man team, whose Comedy Central show Key and Peele was a consistent standout. Key and Peele’s sketches generally have bigger ideas at their core than “Donald Trump has funny hair” or “Let’s see how many celebrity impressions we can shoehorn into this fake gameshow,” but they’re also not above indulging in silliness and surrealism for its own sake.
While Keanu leans heavy on the silliness, Key and Peele sneak a couple of ideas in there, too. Also, some almost lethally cute slow-motion footage of an adorable kitten running around.
That kitten is the title character, Keanu, an especially cute stray who wanders away from the scene of a shootout that leaves his gangster owner dead. The little guy winds up on the doorstep of Rell (Peele), a heartbroken artist wallowing in a pathetic funk after being ditched by his girlfriend. Rell’s best pal, the hopelessly straightlaced Clarence (Key), thinks his best friend has gotten too obsessed with his furry companion— Rell makes a calendar recreating famous scenes from movies with lil’ Keanu as the star— but he’s relieved Clarence is free from his toxic relationship.
Then the kitty goes missing after a break-in at Rell’s house.
Rell suspects the break-in was a mix-up intended for his neighbor, goofball pot dealer Hulka (Will Forte, always a great addition). He conscripts Clarence to help him with the search, which quickly leads them to a club run by gangster Cheddar (Method Man) and into a whole world of trouble. In their panic, Rell and Clarence convince Cheddar they’re a pair of legendary hitmen named Tectonic and Shark Tank from Allentown. The guys slip deeper into their fake identities as the search for Keanu leads them from gangland parties to Hollywood mansions to shootouts.
Oftentimes first movies from sketch comics feel like a series of sketches themselves, or worse, a single concept squeezed dry long before it’s finished. Keanu falls prey to a bit of the former. In particular an inevitable square-guy-takes-drugs sequence feels like an unnecessary diversion existing only to cram in a weird little short film.
That’s not the movie’s most protracted distraction. That distinction goes to an interminable scene in which Rell, in full Tectonic character, accompanies Cheddar’s gang to Anna Faris’s lavish house for a drug deal. The always funny Faris is a terrific presence, but the gag of famous people playing unhinged alternate versions of themselves is woefully tired. It was groundbreaking on The Larry Sanders Show and helped revive Neil Patrick Harris’s career in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Seth Rogen made an entire movie based on the premise with This Is the End. Enough with this one joke. (And while we’re on the subject, it’s not inherently hilarious when characters refer to the celebrity by their full name.)
But Keanu is mostly funny. Occasionally hilarious, even, thanks to its leads’ natural chemistry as well as a solid, if largely unknown, supporting cast including Darrell Britt-Gibson, Tiffany Haddish, Jamar Malachi Neighbors, and Jason Mitchell in his first role post-Straight Outta Compton.
Keanu’s fish-out-of-water concept is familiar, but the more interesting underlying theme is culture-clash comedy within the same culture. It’s a theme Key and Peele have visited before, and here they deal both explicitly and implicitly with notions of blackness. Softhearted stoner Rell doesn’t fit any particular stereotype, and tight-assed Clarence is a finicky suburban social climber as far-removed from the ghetto as it gets. At one point, Rell chastises him for sounding like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy.
When Rell and Clarence venture into a rough, mostly black neighborhood, they both fit in and don’t. Even more interesting, they slip pretty easily into their Shark Tank and Tectonic characters, even noting to one another how oddly comfortable and liberating the ruse feels. Despite the goofy names and hyperbolic backstories, their aliases aren’t entirely caricatured either, just more forceful versions of themselves. Keanu is a silly movie about killing people to rescue a kitten, so the duo doesn’t spend too much time overtly pontificating on their racial thesis, but the resonant insight is to reject the concept of “real blackness” versus “fake blackness.” (It’s an idea that is, alas, slightly undercut by Key’s cartoonishly ineffectual portrayal of Clarence early on— Rell’s assessment is spot on.)
And speaking of that kitten, holy smokes is that kitten ever cute. Audience members swooned and squeed and audibly awwwwed at the fuzzy little guy. Keanu’s occasional attempts to win the title of World’s Most Elaborate Cat Video add unmitigated joy to a dark comedy already predisposed to favor levity over satire. Maybe the cute-cat stuff is a bit of a cheap ploy, but in a world of seemingly endless, inevitable sequels, I wouldn’t mind too much seeing these guys back at it again, maybe trying to rescue a friendly puppy this time.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.