Monday, May 2, 2016
KEANU is a Solid, Often Hilarious Big-Screen Debut for Key & Peele
- For the last several years, Key & Peele have set the gold standard in sketch comedy. Their Comedy Central show was a constantly-buzzworthy showcase for the talented duo, mixing great writing with the pair's ever-versatile acting abilities and surprisingly cinematic presentation. The show's end felt like a huge blow for TV comedy. Sure, Key & Peele had helped to usher in a veritable comedy renaissance over the last few years, helping make Comedy Central - suddenly rife with great shows like K&P, Review, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, and Nathan For You - the strongest it's ever been. But still, Key & Peele seemed to end too soon. Everyone knows that transitioning from sketch comedy to feature films can be perilous, and so even the promise of K&P big-screen collaborations to come couldn't quite numb the pain of having their groundbreaking show come to an end. But the duo's first movie, KEANU, is a positive, reassuring sign that the Key & Peele brand remains strong. KEANU isn't a comedic masterpiece, but it does mostly succeed at translating the trademark K&P style from sketch comedy to feature film. The movie is plenty funny, and any fan of K&P is likely to dig it.
KEANU casts Keegan-Michael Key as Clarence, a dorky, suburban husband and father who plays it safe, keeps it clean, and keeps an iPod full of George Michael's greatest hits in his minivan. Jordan Peele plays Rell, Clarence's best friend who's slightly less dorky, but a lot more aimless. Rell, having recently broken up with his girlfriend, is living a sad bachelor lifestyle of too many movies on the couch, too much pizza delivery, and too much weed. But Rell's life seems to take a turn for the better when a stray cat - possessing an almost magical level of cuteness - walks up to his front door. Rell names the cat Keanu, and suddenly, his life seems to have purpose and meaning. But unbeknownst to Rell, Keanu's previous owners were a shady sort. So of course, it's only a matter of time before the cat's criminal past catches up to Rell. Rell's house gets ransacked, and Keanu gets cat-napped. But rather than resign himself to being a victim, Rell enlists Clarence to find and rescue Keanu - even if doing so means having to go through LA's toughest and most dangerous gangs.
Much of KEANU is driven by one central joke ... but it's a good one. The joke is that, early in the movie, when Clarence and Rell run afoul of notorious gang-leader Cheddar, they are mistaken for the near-mythical Allentown Boys - two deadly criminals, whose violent exploits are the stuff of legend. And so the dorky pair pretend that they are, in fact, the crime duo gone incognito - and do their best to act gangsta, even as they're recruited by Cheddar's gang. Clarence and Rell reluctantly agree to tag along with Cheddar in hopes of retrieving Keanu - but their gangsta bonafides are in constant danger of being exposed as a lark.
That this set-up works so well is a testament to Key & Peele. The two effortlessly go from playing regular joes to regular joes-playing-at-being-gangsta. And the results of their farce are often hilarious. The joke behind the joke is, of course, that Clarence and Rell are two black guys who don't necessarily "act black," and who are now forced to turn it up to eleven in order to blend in with a bunch of hardened gangbangers. The movie is therefore able to throw just a bit of social commentary into the mix, as it pokes fun at both the guys who seem to almost try too hard to shed their racial identity, vs. those who embrace it in a way that's actually destructive - equating "blackness" with coarseness and violence and criminality. This is the genius of Key & Peele at work - not many other comics could pull off this sort of delicate social critique in a way that still puts the comedy and the jokes front and center.
And the jokes here are often uproariously funny. Key & Peele are masters at starting off a joke as being grounded in reality, only to have it escalate to hilariously absurdist heights. Clarence's George Michael obsession is a perfect example of this. It's dropped into the film as a seemingly one-off joke to start, but then keeps reappearing in crazier and ever more heightened ways throughout the film. The movie is also chock full of great one-liners and quotable moments.
What's also a lot of fun here is just the overall aesthetic of the movie. The film's title is apropos, as the movie pays stylistic homage to 80's action flicks like Point Break, as well as the more recent John Wick (and yes, Keanu Reeves does make an appearance, of sorts). On their show, Key & Peele did many hilarious action movie parodies, and they are clearly huge fans of the genre. That love for old-school action definitely comes through here. The movie features some very solid direction from Peter Atencio (who directed many of the show's sketches) - and clearly, a lot of time was spent making the gun battles and car chases feel not just funny, but genuinely exciting. The score is also really great. I consistently got a kick out of the theme that plays whenever Keanu the cat appears - it's a hilariously melodramatic 80's-style tune.
The main thing that keeps KEANU from comedic greatness is simply that it suffers a bit from sketch comedy-itis ... meaning that it at times feels like it's a movie that is built around a handful of jokes that end up getting stretched too thin by the time the movie ends. The film has some sections that definitely feel draggy, as it revisits jokes that already feel a bit overplayed. I also sort of wish that it more embraced Key & Peele's knack for absurdist humor, rather than trying to be a more conventional action-comedy. I mean, this is a movie based around the search for a hyper-cute cat, so it's pretty heightened and absurdist at its core. But some of the elements seemingly put in to make the film feel more grounded - like a love-interest for Rell, or a rushed-feeling subplot about Clarence's wife being hit on by a mutual friend - feel tacked on. Point being - KEANU suffers from trying too hard to be too many things at once.
Still, KEANU is a really funny, really enjoyable movie - and, bonus: it's got a level of smartness to it that you don't always get in a big-screen comedy of this nature. I think Key & Peele's big-screen masterpiece is still ahead of them. But this is a really solid first-film for the duo, and a nice encapsulation of their comedic sensibility. More, please.
My Grade: B+