The worst thing I can say about Keanu is that I know it’s a bit over-familiar and the best thing I can say is despite that, it mostly doesn’t feel over-familiar, thanks to the talent of its two leads, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and the creative team, mostly taken from their brilliant sketch show, Key & Peele. Written by Peele and Alex Reubens (a writer for K&P) and directed by Peter Atencio, the sketch series’ house director, the movie has the same look and feel of the show and the same sense of humor, starting with its ludicrous premise that plays like a feature length expansion of one of the shows rejected sketches.
Rell (Peele), depressed after being dumped by his girlfriend, finds new purpose after the most adorable kitten on the face of the earth, the titular Keanu, finds his way to Rell’s doorstep. A few weeks later, returning home after seeing a movie with his cousin Clarence (Key), the two find Rell’s apartment broken into by drug dealers and Keanu missing. Thus, the two get mixed up in the criminal underworld trying to find and rescue him. It’s a plot that’s admittedly quite silly – in a good way – but Reuben and Peele manage to sell it by embracing its absurdity, as opposed to most comedies that would try to make the story feel more “grounded,” whatever that means. It’s interesting really. When considered afterwards, this isn’t a movie that should work. Even now I find myself wanting to criticize the film for its looseness and outlandish plot, wondering if maybe Key and Peele should have waited for an idea with some more heft to base their feature film debut on. But then I recall how much I enjoyed the film while viewing it and all those concerns melt away.
It is slightly unfair of me to compare the film to Key & Peele, but I think the film benefits from it. Like I said, the same sense of humor is present in the film, but in the fast paced nature of a mainstream film narrative, where the plot must keep chugging along at full speed, most of the humor doesn’t get the same kind of development that it did on television. Which is sad, because Key and Peele’s strength as comedians lies in rooting their humor in some rather dense and astute cultural commentary, subtly examining issues that you might not think a sketch comedy would tackle or has a right to tackle with such intelligence.
Themes of black masculinity, code switching, feminism and more are brought up in the film, but that’s about it: they’re brought up and not really given further consideration. Here, the issues are mined for humor, but there’s no point of view behind their inclusion, no real reason for it to be explored other than for a laugh. I grew increasingly concerned through the film that the movie world had sanitized Key and Peele’s sensibilities as comedians and artists, and my fears were somewhat validated by the film’s, yes, “Hollywood Ending.”
But like I said, perhaps the problem lies in the fact that it’s a 90-minute film and not a 2-to-5 minute sketch. Resolution is required for every ridiculous joke and also for the story itself. In a sketch, an idea can run its course in the exact fashion that’s required of it. It can get in, make its point, and get out without over staying its welcome or having some tacked on resolution to retroactively “justify” it. Key and Peele were nothing if not masters of knowing exactly how long a specific sketch should last, so that it’s short, sweet and to the point, but not too short, so the idea can develop. All of this is sorely missed in the film. And this is why prior exposure to Key & Peele only aids the enjoyment of Keanu, and why I say the film benefits from comparison to the series. Knowing where these jokes come from and what larger comments they point to makes the film feel richer, but holds it back when looked at as a standalone work. The film occupies a strange limbo status where it feels like a fun, enjoyable completion to the show, but also a mildly disappointing rehash of much the same material, modified for a movie, but subsequently having lost what made it so special.
That’s not to say the film isn’t funny. It is, deliriously so. If it does one thing well, it’s reaffirm its two stars as amongst the best comic performers working today and shows how well they work together. It’s also nice to see them playing characters that more closely resemble human beings, as opposed to the outrageous caricatures they’re more accustomed to. That is to say, it’s great to see them as comedic actors, rather than comedians. The rest of the supporting cast is quite suitable, but they feel like background most of the time, lost amidst the whirlwind comic magnetism of Key and Peele, save for a few cameos I won’t spoil.
Atencio’s direction is likewise suitable. Unsurprisingly, he knows exactly how to work with Key and Peele and plays to their strengths as performers. Unfortunately, he also seems to be a bit less inspired. Atencio’s direction on the series was consistently great, at times absolutely masterful. He knew how to create a style for each sketch, especially when dealing with genre parody. He often understood how to distill the essence of a sketches’ concept into his direction, getting the feel of a genre or style perfect when called for, amplifying the comedy of each scene through his camera and music, in particular. But without a unifying idea to focus his direction towards, he mostly directs the film as if it were any other modern American comedy film, with no visual panache or clever implementation of cinematic technique unless explicitly called for in action or dream sequences, where it’s obvious the film requires some more inventive direction. When these sequences do come along, he nails it, but there is ample room elsewhere in the film for Atencio to flex his creative muscles, and unfortunately he leaves these opportunities lying on the table.
But don’t get me wrong; Keanu is an entertaining, extremely funny film. I was laughing throughout and it gets better as it goes. Despite its shortcomings, it’s a film I very much enjoyed and most audiences will too. If you need a dose of Key and Peele after the end of their show, look no further, because fans will undoubtedly enjoy this. If you’ve heard of them and are wondering what all the hubbub is about, now’s a perfect time to discover their greatness. Keanu ends up as a great, but shallow, distillation/introduction to what has made the two notable over the past few years. But let’s hope there’s more to come and that they continue to improve on their already impressive and subversive work, and not just continue to coast.