I was first introduced to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele by way of their prolific YouTube presence under the auspices of their Comedy Central sketch show, Key and Peele. And it is unfortunate for these two legitimately talented and likable comedians that the two sketches that everyone kept insistently sharing with me were “Substitute Teacher” – in which a black teacher mispronounces, with gradually mounting rage, all of the white kids’ names – and “East/West College Bowl“, in which the pair (and others) play a series of verbal introductions of increasingly absurdly named black college football players. Each of these sketches had sequels, which were also shared with me, and before I ever watched a single full-length episode of Key and Peele, I was left with the unfair, but nonetheless persistent impression that these two comics only had a single solid joke between them – name-based racial humor. And as amusing as I found it, I resisted watching their sketch show for a long time because of it.
That feeling came roaring back this evening as I watched the pair’s first duo feature, Keanu, written by Peele and Community alum Alex Rubens. After a pair of unnamed brothers from Allentown slaughter a gangland drug operation, one of the only survivors is a compulsively adorable kitten, who wanders off and appears on the doorstep of bong-toking lonely-heart Rell (Peele), who immediately adopts him and names him Keanu. His best friend, suburban family man Clarence (Key) takes him out for a night on the town, and before you can say “premise”, Rell’s apartment is ransacked, and his kitten is kidnapped. What begins is an odyssey of fish-out-of-water crime as the pair of milquetoast nerds try their best to play gangster and rise up through the ranks of gangland Los Angeles so they can reclaim their feline friend.
This is a rich premise for an action-comedy. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy a great deal of it, mostly owing to the persistent likability and friendship between the two leads. The pair reminded me of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street, with their mutual affinity never in doubt even as they are swept up in increasingly dire circumstances. Unfortunately, unlike Jump Street, Keanu is a humdrum action flick, a dull and directionless comedy, and a tonally inconsistent mess that meanders from one shallow sketch premise to the next, lingering too long on the ones that weren’t all that funny (no one will be seated during the “Gangsters listen to George Michael” scene), and blasting through the ones where the tone turns pitch-black in an instant. Late in the film, a character reminds Rell that his actions have consequences. But despite this after-school special moment, the consequences are nonsensical and short-lived.
I really can’t overstate how underwhelming the action was in this film. Director Peter Atencio never once instills each interchangeable slow-mo shootout with any real sense of danger or coherence, and rather than feeling like a film that didn’t quite have the budget to realize its grand ideas (looking at you, Deadpool), Keanu instead feels like a film that had just enough budget to render some extremely simplistic and uninteresting ideas that they thought sounded cool on paper. There’s a shoot-out at a mansion! With a character we just met and don’t care about. There’s a car chase, and the kitten is in danger! No, he’s not, even though he really ought to be. There’s a gun pointed at Key and Peele’s faces! *forcible yawn* Get on with not shooting them already. At least they each maybe got to do a flip off a wall?
Keanu seemed content to barrel through each of its action beats and extricate its characters with improbable plot twists or outright surreal nonsense. None of the personal stakes for the characters are spelled out in any way. Rell just broke up with his [completely unseen] girlfriend, and has no one in his life but the titular cat that he wants back at all costs. And Clarence’s family is safely off-screen with a would-be cuckhold (Rob Heubel) for 90% of the film’s runtime. Their identity crisis about whether or not either of them is sufficiently “gangster” never feels authentic for a second, as they’re both clearly nerds. And unlike, say, the lead in Rick Famuyiwa‘s Dope, they never once use their nerdery to their advantage. They just try their best to talk tough, and occasionally, accidentally do something that makes them look tough. The only character beat that comes anywhere close to justifying their persistent criminal pursuit of the cat is their visible regard and friendship for one another, and this thread wears thin quickly as they spend far more time blithely endangering each other’s lives than not.
The less said about the film’s last five minutes, the better – and after watching them, I know it seems harsh to judge a film so rigidly when it seems so determined to keep one teetering foot in Comedy World. There’s an adorable kitten that they need to find, and goldurnit, they’re gonna wander amongst some interchangeable gangsters to do it. But comedy is hard, and even a silly, fluffy mess like Sisters did a better job of telling me what these absurd characters mean to one another, and why they’re so desperate to do the Big, Dumb Thing that they mean to do by the film’s end. Keanu wasn’t Jump Street, Hot Fuzz, or The Other Guys. It wasn’t even MacGruber or Austin Powers. It was a pretty cute cat with a couple of pretty likable owners. And that’s all I’m prepared to concede.
FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10