Let me get this out of the way before I start: I am not an objective reviewer when it comes to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of Comedy Central Key and Peele fame. Much of my freshmen year of college was spent watching, sharing and quoting their sketches with friends because I genuinely believe they are some of the most hilarious and inventive comedians out there. I adore Carlito the proud thug, the substitute teacher and the classic “Menstruation Orientation” (fans will know exactly what I’m referring to). This is the bias that I walked into their feature film debut, Keanu proudly holding on to, and I was not disappointed.
The comedy stars Jordan Peele as Rell, a recently broken up with, down-on-his-luck stoner who lays around on his couch until the day Keanu the kitten shows up on his doorstep. Keegan-Michael Key plays Clarence, a white-bred husband and father who is granted a weekend to himself by his wife. She tells him to “be the man HE wants to be.” Their epic quest begins when Rell’s new kitten is stolen by a gang leader named “Cheddar.” Rell and Clarence have to infiltrate the criminal underworld to earn Cheddar’s respect and steal back Keanu.
If you are a fan of Key and Peele, their characters’s relationship in this film is exactly as you’d want and expect: they talk over and sling insults at each other just before having each other’s backs. It feels like the characters know everything, probably too much about each other, like most cases of best-friendship are. Most importantly, they have terrific comedic timing, probably because Key and Peele have just spent so damn long working together. Their first appearance together was all the way back in 2006 in Weird Al’s “White & Nerdy,” and playing exaggerated thugs, no less!
For all of their future films (of which I hope there are many), Key and Peele would do well to stay generally within the boundaries of their relationship in Keanu, which is similar to the relationship the actors seem to have in real life. Whether future films set them in the post-apocalypse, a sci-si future or medieval times, their brotherly bond is what will keep us all coming back.
I want to specifically call out Key as a standout in this film. In most of their sketches, Peele is given the wacky personality to contrast with Key’s normality and confusion at Peele. Their formula holds up to some extent at the start of Keanu, but right when the two men start to settle into their stereotypical gangster personas, Clarence is the one who runs with it. I wont spoil the ways in which he convinces the gang that he’s hardcore, but trust me that the N-word is only the first attempt he makes. It only gets crazier from there. Key also plays the dramatic side of Clarence well (yes, there’s actually a touch of dramatic heft in Keanu). His marriage is in danger, and over the course of the movie he grows up and rises to challenge of standing up for himself. He names his gangster persona “Shark Tank.” Do I have to say more?
All bias aside, this is a funny movie but I wouldn’t call it a hilarious movie; that praise, for me, is reserved for comedies like This is Spinal Tap, Anchorman and The Hangover. While those examples seemingly have nothing in common, they are very well-paced in laughs and all around mayhem for the main cast. Keanu has moments of hilarity, but they are sprinkled only a few times in between a lot of chuckle-worthy moments: banter between Key and Peele that is believably awkward, but not really set up for a larger gag. They are sketch comedians by training, so it makes sense that Keanu has few payoffs aside from the single, running joke that they are nerdy, middle-class guys trying to play thug. That joke works, but I think the movie would have entertained more frequently if they broke the movie down scene-by-scene to ensure constant humor. Look no further than their YouTube channel, which is filled to the brim with standalone scenes that if stitched together, would make a gut-bustingly funny film.
The film’s action is surprisingly coherent. It was a pleasant surprise to find myself actually invested in the film’s climactic shootout and chase scene. The director Peter Atencio must have been in an interesting situation, making a comedy in which the funniness is largely controlled by the personalities of the two stars. That said, he kept his directorial style minimal, paused for all the right dramatic beats, and let the stars shine. Anything but focusing on Key and Peele would have been an insult to the audience.
Also noteworthy are the performances of Method Man as Cheddar and Tiffany Haddish as “Hi-C”, Cheddar’s bad-ass second in command. Method Man – and frankly all the members of his gang – are not portrayed in a mean-spirited or condescending way; they are shown to be human beings with violent tendencies, but in certain cases, good hearts. Key’s Clarence even has a few things to teach them about strong team communication. Hi-C is charismatic and strong, playing a more-important role in the story than I expected. She interacts most with Peele’s Rell, and their chemistry certainly gives the film variety from the central bromance.
Finally: the kitten, Keanu himself. I’m not sure how they did it, but they managed to find the cutest animal possible that made myself (a twenty year-old man) and the entire audience scream when it “meowed.” They must have used CGI during Keanu’s action scenes, because I can’t believe that the kitten was really able to leap and pounce for the camera on command; no animal can be that perfect, right? For one standout scene, Keanu is even voiced by Keanu Reeves, which will make any fans of The Matrix lose their minds.
Overall, I really enjoyed Keanu. At 98 minutes, the film moves along at a good pace and is never boring. It is funny, but not hilarious. As mentioned, it could have benefited from a more sketch-comedy approach to each scene rather than the overarching plot. It could have been funnier, sure, but I only say that because I know Key and Peele are capable of making me laugh the hardest I ever have!
I’m going to give the film a good score. Not a great score, but if I can do anything to cast one positive stone into the critical pond to help Keanu do well, then I will. I want nothing more than for Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key to continue in the movie business. Go see Keanu if you want that too!