Keanu may be a glorified feature-length Key and Peele skit, but it’s also an entertaining and thematically-layered action/comedy parody.
Keanu stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as (respectively) Clarence and Rell, a mild-mannered, middle-class, married fellow and his ne’er-do-well friend. Rell has recently fallen into a slump after having been dumped by his longtime girlfriend, but then finds his spirit and sense of purpose renewed when he discovers a homeless kitten at his doorstep and adopts the young animal as his new pet, naming it Keanu. However, trouble arrives one night when after having gone to see a movie to kick off their weekend together (what with Clarence’s family being out of town), Clarence and Rell find that the latter’s home has been burglarized and ransacked – and that the mysterious thieves have taken Keanu along with them.
Clarence and Rell, acting on a tip from Rell’s weed provider Hulka (Will Forte), track Keanu to a local strip club, where they find that a gangster nicknamed ‘Cheddar’ (Method Man) has taken and adopted Keanu as his own. Determined to get his beloved kitten back no matter what, Rell convinces Clarence to help him pretend that the pair are, in fact, a ruthless duo of criminals/drug dealers from out of town that everyone’s talking about, so that Chedder will make a deal with them – where, in return for their services, he will give them Keanu (or, rather, the “gangster pet” they’re in the market for). Of course, that plan doesn’t exactly go smoothly, especially once the real out of town crooks in question get wind of what Clarence and Rell are up to…
Comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have earned themselves a loyal cult thanks to their efforts on Comedy Central’s acclaimed sketch comedy series Key and Peele (which aired from 2012-2015), in addition to their numerous guest-starring appearances on a variety of TV shows in recent years (including, their recurring role on Fargo season 1). Keanu is the first full-length film that was headlined by the pair, in addition to having been co-written by Peele and Key and Peele writer Alex Rubens, as well as directed by Key and Peele series’ helmsman Peter Atencio. For these reasons, it ought to come as little surprise that Keanu in many ways feels most like, well, an extended Key and Peele sketch… though fortunately, in the best way possible.
On the surface-level, Keanu explores its (comically absurd) premise through what amounts to a largely bare-bones three act narrative – unlike the richer character story that Key and Peele’s fellow Comedy Central sketch comedy breakout star, Amy Schumer, explored in her own full-length writing/starring vehicle, Trainwreck, back in 2015. However, whereas Trainwreck (arguably) ended up missing the biting social commentary/satire of Schumer’s best comedy sketch work, Keanu tackles issues related to racial/cultural identity and stereotypes with the same wit and cleverness that Key and Peele did throughout their previous sketch comedy work. As a result, Keanu wind up being a much more layered film than its (charmingly) silly and simple setup would suggest.
Keanu successfully riffs on visual, character, and even musical tropes that are commonly associated with inner-city crime drama/thriller genre fare, be it via over the top slow-motion shoot-outs and/or a frequently comically operatic soundtrack composed by Steven Jablonsky (the Transformers film series) and Nathan Whitehead (The Purge: Anarchy). This filmmaking approach not only compliments the movie’s plot beats in an immediate sense – as the characters Clarence and Rell likewise do a (comedic) imitation of every gangster cliche they can think of in order to maintain their charade – but also on a meta level. This allows Key, Peele and their collaborators here to draw inspiration from, and in turn smartly send-up, a variety of conventions and stereotypes associated with Hollywood movies about black and/or inner-city gang culture.
The team behind Keanu don’t restrict themselves to satirizing and/or poking fun at crime/gangster films only, as the movie (like many a Key and Peele sketch before it) also explicitly references a number of popular Hollywood features – and yes, Keanu includes a joke that revolves around a certain actor who may’ve even inspired the name of the eponymous kitten. Much of the film’s humor (that which hits its mark and misses alike) comes from the back and forth banter between its two leads; from a directorial perspective though, Atencio still does a solid job at integrating enough in the way of funny edits and/or visually-driven comedy into the proceedings. This, in turn, allows Keanu to feel more cinematic and not just like a collection of scenes where Key and Peele improvise and/or bounce jokes off one another (even given the film’s lower-budgeted aesthetic and design).
Key and Peele, as you would expect, are the main attraction in Keanu, along with the adorable title character (who was played by no less than seven different cats). Similar to the protagonists in many a comedian-led vehicle before, there are obvious parallels between the nerdy (and milquetoast) characters Clarence and Rell in this movie and Key and Peele’s real-life public personas. Neither Clarence nor Rell are provided with an especially rich or meaningful character arc in Keanu, but the tried-and-true chemistry between the pair (when coupled with the self-reflexive nature of their roles) makes Key and Peele’s onscreen counterparts easy to root for, even as they blunder from one comical mishap to another. The fact that Key and Peele also play an ominously silent non-local criminals (known as Smoke and Oil Dresden) whose actions set Keanu‘s plot in motion only adds another layer of funny meta-comedy to the proceedings.
Keanu‘s supporting cast, like Key and Peele, in general deliver solid performances and make the caricatures that they’re playing all the likable for it. That crew includes Tiffany Haddish (The Carmichael Show) as ‘Hi-C’, Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) as ‘Bud’, Jamar Malachi Neighbors (Underbelly Blues) as ‘Stitches’, and Method Man as ‘Cheddar’ – whose name, for those who’re unaware, is a nod to his character Melvin “Cheese” Wagstaff on The Wire. Former SNL actor (and current The Last Man on Earth star) Will Forte is likewise funny in his small role as Rell’s not-so-intimidating weed dealer, Hulka, as are the handful of additional name actors who pop up along the way.
Keanu may be a glorified feature-length Key and Peele skit, but it’s also an entertaining and thematically-layered action/comedy parody. Those who are dedicated fans of Key and Peele’s previous Comedy Central sketch comedy work should get additional mileage out of Keanu for that reason, since the latter delivers much of the same brand of humor for the running time of a full-length feature – but hasn’t already run out of gas by the time the end credits start rolling. Although Keanu does contain direct nods to a number of famous Key and Peele sketches, it’s nonetheless a good starting point for anyone who’s less familiar with that TV show, but wants to find out if Key and Peele’s humor is their cup of tea. It’s plausible (even likely) that future Key and Peele-led movies will offer diminishing returns should their comedy approach grow stagnant and/or fail to evolve further – but for the time being, watching a movie where Key and Peele join forces in order to save a kitten from gangsters is, indeed, enough on its own.
Keanu is now playing in U.S. theaters nation-wide. It is 98 minutes long and is Rated R for violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity.
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