This is a reprint of our review of the work-in-progress screening from the 2016 SXSW Film Festival.
In “Keanu,” a patchy mix between kidnapping crime comedy and glorified cat video, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele cap off their sketch show success with a first feature that adds a large budget to their specific brand of humor. After five incredible seasons of “Key & Peele” skewering black masculinity in its various forms, the duo here settle for an uninspired riff on Los Angeles gang culture, stringing together fish-out-of-water vignettes by using a stray kitten as thread. While this ensures an adorable animal reaction shot to match every gag, just a few of those earn the sharp result that you’d expect from the film’s talented creators.
Key and Peele play Clarence and Rell, respectively, two cousins living in Los Angeles in separate stages of adulthood. Clarence is an uptight family man and people pleaser, agreeing to set aside time for himself only if it will please his insistent wife (Nia Long). Across town, Rell is an unmotivated stoner living on his couch, made extra inactive by a recent breakup. However, fate soon intervenes when a mewing kitten scratches at his doorstep, is immediately scooped up and named Keanu, yanking Rell out of his darkness, and giving him a new lease on life.
Little does Rell realize though that Keanu is a kitten of the drug trade, which promptly finds the animal kidnapped by Cheddar (Method Man), drug dealing leader of the 7th Street Blips, outcasts of both the Bloods and Crips. Rell enlists Clarence to help retrieve the cat, and soon enough both men are deep in Blip territory, posing as gangsters “Shark Tank” and “Tectonic” long enough to complete their mission without being killed first.
In Clarence and Rell’s necessary transformation from middle class to gangsta, Peele and co-writer Alex Rubens opt for played-out behavior in their screenplay, starting with rapid-fire use of the N-word, baggy clothes, and gravelly voices. It’s a frustrating sight, given that in numerous three-minute sketches Key and Peele have tackled the subject with more subtlety than during the entire runtime of “Keanu.” The film’s larger scope feels partially to blame: director and original collaborator Peter Atencio finds every opportunity to throw in unremarkable strip clubs, car chases, and mansion shootouts, as though each might warrant the big-screen treatment through sheer repetition.
To be fair, the film screened at SXSW as a “work-in-progress,” and so these sequences that lacked a visual spark may still receive one. However, the most satisfying beats occur when Atencio realizes the smaller, surreal touches of Peele and Rubens’ script, like fully committing to an ’80s music video sequence, or using a series of cuts during a stakeout to drive home a punchline involving singer George Michael and his righteous place among the black community.
Key and Peele’s onscreen chemistry remains as strong as ever as was, not slowing a hair since their sketch show’s series finale. In fact, it is their relatable dynamic that carries the film through its rougher patches, including script issues with Clarence specifically. Uncoiling his warped self-awareness when apart from his family, Keegan-Michael Key sells Clarence’s arc even as the script throws in cheap machinations to test it (Rob Huebel appears briefly — and pointlessly — as a temptation for Nia Long’s character). Plus, Jordan Peele knows instinctively how to write for Key and himself, so a stream of notable lines appear with regularity. (Rell dubbing Clarence’s speech patterns “Richard Pryor doing an imitation of a white person” is an early standout.)
As for the titular kitten, his face will likely be the lasting image from the film, rather than the squibs, explosions, gunfire, and cameos from Will Forte and Anna Faris (playing herself in a drug deal gone quickly south). Atencio knows that face’s power — he constantly plasters it onscreen in cutaways, and uses it again for a cinema-themed kitten calendar over the end credits. The film’s obvious influence is “John Wick,” which used a dog as a winking plot device, showing it briefly before stirring Keanu Reeves to swiftly avenge its death. In “Keanu,” what should be animal motivation is instead stretched to a patience-testing maximum, the filmmakers’ quest for an “aww” winning out over laughs and insight from two of comedy’s great satirists. [C]