With Keanu, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have made the leap from Comedy Central sketch show to full length motion picture and the results are pretty great. Fans of Key and Peele will feel right at home with the jokes and fans of kittens will hopefully be satisfied with their new cinematic representative (Keanu is pretty darn cute). Up for debate though, the question as to whether a sketch writing team are up to the task of feature film? That will take a little more explaining.
Quick Synopsis of Keanu
Telling the story of Rell (Peele) and his cousin Clarence (Key), Keanu follows their journey after Rell comes into ownership of the titular cat. After the cat goes missing, the cousins must go into the world of the Los Angeles gang scene to retrieve him. Will Forte, Method Man, Tiffany Haddish, Jason Mitchell, and Luiz Guzmán fill out the supporting cast in comical “gangster” roles. Two things are for certain with this film. One, the individual scenes (like the sketch show before it) are funny as hell. Two, that kitten is extremely cute (this is a big deal, as my allegiance falls on the other side of the aisle).
Key and Peele Influence
The central joke of Keanu is that Rell and Clarence are suburban black men out of place in the stereotypical world of thug culture. They like Quentin Tarantino films, Clarence can retell the philosophy of George Michael, and a mini-van is the vehicle of choice. Suffice to say, when they go to the other side of town, they don’t quite fit in. Have you seen the “I Said Biiitch” Sketch on Key and Peele? Then you pretty much know the joke they are going for. Yes, these guys are responsible husbands with a 401k to think about, but when they want to be tough, the deeper voice and profanity comes out.
Though the joke has been scene on Key and Peele, that doesn’t make it any less funny here. Many times the two have a frightened conversation as to whether their actions are responsible or not, only to be followed by an exaggerated f-word as they try to sound “street” to their peers, it’s always funny and those scenes are plentiful throughout the movie.
The bottom line is that these guys are funny, and that is the most positive thing you can say about a comedy. The film is at its best when our suburban heroes interact with the convincing world of the streets. Each of the core gang members are great, and having Rell and Clarence explain (in hilarious fake personas) why it is gangsta to drive a mini-van makes for comedy gold.
The film is directed by Peter Atencio, who directed every episode of Key and Peele, and this guy is one of the best comedy directors working today. In the same vein as Edgar Wright and Phil Lord & Chris Miller, Atencio understands that comedy is just as much about visual humor as it is about funny dialogue. In addition to the well choreographed action scenes (and there are many), the way in which Atencio frames a scene or utilizes proper editing is a testament to his skills as a director. Yes, having Keegan-Michael Key explain why George Michael is thug is funny, but Atencio’s framing of the scene and the way he edits the film elevates these jokes beyond just a simple bit in a stand-up set.
The movie is really funny and both the comedy and the action is directed with skill. Unfortunately, the initial premise of a “Gangster Cat” movie is really stretched thin when it comes to a two-hour long movie. This is the type of idea that would work perfectly as a running joke on the TV show, every couple episodes we continue the adventures of Keanu, a kitten living in the thug life. But there just isn’t enough staying power to keep the narrative going the entire film.
Keanu really is in the same company as Hot Fuzz or 21 Jump Street. All these films have well directed action-comedy, but unlike its peers, Keanu doesn’t fully deliver when it comes to character and story. Clarence has somewhat of a subplot in which he is learning to live a little bit more and impress his wife, and Rell’s whole character arc pretty much revolves around his connection with Keanu. It’s not that the story tries for something and fails, it is more that the individual comedic scenes have more devotion in lieu of an overall developed story.
Though it may be lacking overall as a feature film, Keanu is a total blast and there is a ton of fun to be had here. The screenplay by Peele and Alex Rubens is packing to the brim with jokes and the cast delivers the comedic goods. Key, Peele, and Atencio have brought the comedic genius of their show and translated it to the big screen, with the addition of a cute cat, Keanu is a big winner and a great time at the movies.