Director: Peter Atencio
Cast: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jason Mitchell, Jamar Malachi Neighbors, Will Forte, Luis Guzmán, Nia Long, Rob Huebel
MPAA Rating: (for violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 4/29/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 28, 2016
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are best known for their incisive and insightful (not to mention hilarious) sketch comedy show, in which the realities of matters such as race, politics, and pop culture were seen through a just-absurdist-enough-to-be-satirical lens. They have moved to the big screen with Keanu, which isn't a series of sketches but still, unfortunately, retains that same spirit.
The running, unifying gag is that Key and Peele play two straitlaced guys (Well, one is purely such, and the other is relatively so) who get caught up in a gang. It's an opportunity for the screenplay by Peele and Alex Rubens (who also served as a writer on the team's show) to put the two characters in assorted situations in which they try to play tough, even as their personalities and, in one lengthy scene, taste in music belie the act. There's a plot here, too, which involves a kitten that is so adorable that it turns nice guys into gangsters and gangsters into doting pet owners. That plot is eventually lost amidst the movie's real purpose, which is to give us a series of scenes based upon what turns out to be a thin joke.
That running joke is, admittedly, pretty funny at first. A lot of that has to do with how well the movie's stars have refined the concept of characters dealing with dueling, seemingly incompatible personas—all the while displaying how uncomfortable the performance is for those characters. If anything, the movie works as a star vehicle for the two actors—a reminder for those who know what they can do and an introduction for those who may not have encountered them before this. In a way, it's the culmination of a particular element of their comedic talents. Take that previous statement two ways: 1.) that it's the logical extension of what they've done in the past, and 2.) that—now that they've reached such a wide audience with the shtick—maybe it's time for them to explore some new material, too.
The two play cousins Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key). The duo also, briefly plays a pair of long-haired, trench coat-clad assassins who, in the story's prologue, kill an assortment of people running a drug-manufacturing operation. The guy running the place has a kitten, and the killers, taken aback by its cuteness, immediately take to it.
The cat runs away and finds its way to Rell's apartment. The recently heartbroken Rell becomes instantly attached to and emotionally dependent on the feline, which he names Keanu.
The kitten ends up with a new owner after a misunderstanding involving Rell's weed dealer Hulka (Will Forte). Rell and Clarence, whose wife (Nia Long) has instructed him to be himself while she's away with their daughter for the weekend, go looking for Keanu. They find the cat in the possession of Cheddar (Method Man), a gang leader who mistakes the duo for the assassins from the opening scene. They have to keep up the charade in order to get back Keanu.
The following scenes repeat the same joke, occasionally upping the stakes to make Rell and Clarence even more uncomfortable with the way the gang members see them, what they are witnessing, and, eventually, what they have to do to keep up appearances. Each setup presents an opportunity for the characters to make potential fools of themselves—or, theoretically, get themselves killed. Rumors of the physical prowess of the actual assassins lead to an awkward moment in which Cheddar's gang (played by Tiffany Haddish, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jason Mitchell, and Jamar Malachi Neighbors) wants to see a display of their talents. Clarence's love for the music of George Michael forces him to convince Cheddar's guys that it's not—not to put too fine a point on it—"white" music.
The whole sham is, to an extent, based on racial stereotypes, and Peele and Rubens are smart enough not to overplay them to an unpleasant point. The screenplay, in addition to whatever improvisation that Peele and Key might be employing (Their delivery and comic timing are too precise to give away any noticeable improvised bits), also doesn't take the extra step to find anything relevant or perceptive to say about the stereotypes. Just before the two begin their fakery, Clarence argues with Rell about the usage of a certain racial epithet. The issue is instantly dropped once the game begins, and Clarence is immediately comfortable with and prolific in his use of the term. The suddenness of the dismissal of his qualms is a funny moment, but that's all it is. The same goes with an inconsistent joke about Clarence becoming a father figure for the young, male members of the gang.
Beyond all of this, though, the movie never sells its connecting through line. The guys basically stop caring about the kitten for a long stretch, until it becomes necessary during the big, climactic shootout (The movie's odd eruptions of violence, by the way, are a repeated, lazy way to bring about a punch line). What keeps Keanu from being obviously, irritatingly idle, though, is the commitment its stars bring to the material. Key and Peele have a future. Here's hoping they get to it, already.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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