by Matt Levine
Continuing the tradition of sublime ridiculousness established by sketch-comedy classics such as The State and Mr. Show, Key & Peele provided some of the best comedy on television from 2012 to 2015. Even when the show’s ideas fell flat (an inevitability for any show that whips up so much content from week to week), it was enlivened by the presence of its stars and creators: tall, lanky, often-manic Keegan-Michael Key, who can be laugh-out-loud funny simply with the tone of his voice; and droll, stocky Jordan Peele, a master of straight-faced absurdity. Whether the show was embracing its love for the truly ludicrous, tackling controversial subjects, or lampooning elements of black culture, the duo’s chemistry and willingness to embrace any half-baked idea was ingratiating at worst and euphoric at best.
Director: Peter Atencio
Producers: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Peter Principato, Paul Young, Joel Zadak
Writers: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens
Cinematographer: Jas Shelton
Editor: Nicholas Monsour
Music: Steve Jablonsky, Nathan Whitehead
Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Tiffany Haddish, Nia Long, Method Man, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jason Mitchell, Jamar Malachi Neighbors, Luis Guzmán, Will Forte, Rob Huebel
US Theatrical Release: April 29, 2016
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
But the leap from small-screen sketch comedy to feature film can often be rocky, a fact partially (though not entirely) reaffirmed by Keanu. The gimmick is practically destined for a three-minute short: after his adorable kitten Keanu is abducted by a hardcore gang known as the Blips (because they’re all rejects from the Bloods and Crips), laid-back stoner Rell (Peele) and his uptight, George Michael-loving friend Clarence (Key) infiltrate Los Angeles’ toughest crews in order to reclaim the cutest cat alive. How does this idea get stretched out to fill a 90-minute running time? Thankfully, under the guidance of Key and Peele (along with co-writer Alex Rubens and director Peter Atencio, a veteran of their show), Keanu is surprisingly consistent and entertaining given this thinnest of plots, though they are forced to resort to some lazy filler material in an ending that runs out of steam.
Utter ridiculousness is the guiding principle here, not surprisingly. Of course there’s the fact that the toughest gangbangers in LA, from a ringleader named Chedder (Method Man) to a drug kingpin named Bacon (Luis Guzmán), fall in love with the heart-melting kitten; Rell even makes a calendar recreating his favorite movie moments with Keanu, painstakingly posing him in scenes from Reservoir Dogs and The Shining. (He insists the calendar will not be for sale—“private use only.”) But there are countless smaller moments that embrace the muse of absurdity, from a drug-trip in which Clarence imagines he’s in the music video for George Michael’s “Faith” to a self-deprecating cameo from a sword-wielding Anna Faris. Whether or not you watch Keanu under some kind of influence (not a bad idea if that’s your thing), the movie’s uninhibited tone—far surpassing the merely silly into the outer stratosphere of the truly ludicrous—is infectious and occasionally wondrous.
At times, Keanu is smarter than it pretends to be. Clarence and Rell are average guys—the former has a family and drives a minivan, the latter doesn’t even have a driver’s license because he’s from New York—who are forced to adopt what they believe are thuggish mannerisms to fit in with the Blips. Making up the monikers Tectonic and Shark Tank on the spot, they are forced to sell a mindblowing drug cocktail called Holy Shit and concoct elaborate stories about their outrageously violent pasts. Both the funniest and most interesting scene in the movie occurs when “Tectonic” and “Shark Tank” show up at a dangerous strip club called HPV (an acronym too filthy for me to detail here) and debate how to accurately behave like gangsters, discussing how historically loaded the “n word” is before throwing that epithet liberally into their conversation. (While testing out their newfound personas, Rell tells Clarence that he normally sounds like “Richard Pryor impersonating a white guy.”) Even throwaway jokes like Rell’s pot-dealer Hulka—a white man played by Will Forte with cornrows and a pseudo-gangsta accent—implicitly question what it means to be black or white, and much of the film’s comedy (like many of the sketches on Key & Peele) derives from issues of racial identity, how behavior is often influenced by societal expectations as much as anything else. I don’t mean to overplay Keanu’s complexity—the movie sidesteps seriousness any chance it gets—but its parodic tone often carries weighty, culturally loaded subtexts.
Unfortunately (and perhaps inevitably), Keanu can’t sustain its figurative high for an hour and a half. The climax is simply a gang-war shootout with a number of lazy jokes, and a late plot twist incorporating the police and imprisonment completely avoids the satirical bite it could have had (especially considering how fearless their TV show’s sketches often were). Maybe the constraints of feature-film storytelling got to Key and Peele in the end, pressuring them to dismiss their love of absurdity and satire for a neat, tidy resolution. Stylistically, the movie also takes few chances, relying on the most basic cinematography and a soundtrack that eagerly embraces cliché. Even so, the jump from television to film is surprisingly smooth for Key and Peele in Keanu, suggesting that they might be able to sustain their comedic ingenuity for an entire film in the future. At the very least, I know I can’t wait for whatever it is they dream up next, and I also know I will probably be seeing Keanu at least one more time in the theater—next time, perhaps, under the influence of a narcotic somewhat less debilitating than Holy Shit.