Reviewing a comedy like Keanu – the feature-film debut from Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele (best known as Comedy Central’s Key & Peele) — presents something of an interesting challenge, in that almost any argument I make for or against it can be trumped by the counterpoint, “Dude, it’s a movie about a cat.” Describing anything about Keanu aside from whether it’s funny or not (it often is) seems kind of pointless in the grand scheme of things, because it’s not like film scholars are going to be studying its nuance and use of mise en scene in film classes down the line. It’s a movie about a cat, but in order to protect myself from the wrath of the Internet, let me first attempt to defend my thoughts on Keanu by taking you behind the curtain for a minute.
When I sit down to write a movie review, I typically do so with three things in mind:
- Do the narrative elements of its story (characterization, plot, etc.) hold up?
- Does it achieve what (I think) it set out to accomplish?
- Does it shamelessly exploit an animal’s cuteness for its own personal gain?
While I’m pretty confident that Keanu passes those second two tests with flying colors, it’s that all-important first one where kind of falls apart.
Directed by Peter Atencio (aka the man behind every single episode of Key & Peele), Keanu centers around Rell (Peele), a down-on-his-luck slacker who finds the cure for his breakup blues when the titular kitten shows up on his front doorstep looking for a new home. Keanu is catnapped shortly thereafter, and Rell enlists the help of his buddy Clarence (Key) – an uptight, “white” black guy with a fondness for George Michael (seriously, about 20% of Keanu’s entire plot is devoted to WHAM! jokes) to get him back. Their journey eventually takes them to a strip club run by the nefarious 19th Street Blips, and yadda yadda .... SPOILERS for those of you who have literally never seen a movie before.
Taking it back to my original quandary: I guess I should tell you that Keanu is a funny movie for the most part, even if it ends up feeling more like a 90-minute Key & Peele sketch than it does a complete story. For anyone expecting it to deliver anything beyond the one-joke idea of its premise, however, you may end up leaving Keanu feeling a bit disappointed.
Probably the most glaring issue I’ve noticed in modern “American” comedies is their need to stick to the same basic script even when dealing with a plot that has no place being contained to it - and Keanu is no exception. It takes an inherently irreverent idea, runs it through the standardized Hollywood motions, and then just kind of half-commits to most of its bits in order to kill time before its hastened (and largely underwhelming) finale. Key and Peele inject plenty of humor and energy into every scene, but there’s no real sense of creativity when it comes to the overarching story being told. It just plays it way too safe, and often without any sense of direction (both literal and figurative).
A big part of the problem is that of its main characters – specifically, that we know nothing about them. Rell is coming off a breakup and wants his cat back. Clarence has a wife (Nia Long, who is utterly wasted in a few throwaway scenes) who may or may not respect him because he’s such a nice guy. That’s literally all we learn about Key and Peele’s characters other than that they are funny – a fact that they’ve both been proving since way back in their MadTV days. Not every story has to define fully-realized, layered characters in order to be successful, but Keanu really falters by attempting to legitimize these incredibly familiar characteristics (mainly Clarence’s) with side plots that have next-to-no payoff.
The other issue is that Keanu, while having all the bones of a classic “stoner”-type comedy, is missing a lot of the vital organs that would make it feel like an actual movie. You can very much tell that Keanu is not only the product of sketch comedy writers, but a sketch comedy director, is what I’m getting at. The beats are very TV-esque, in that scenes either tend to drag on a bit too long -- the longest scene in the entire film is devoted to a mostly pointless drug deal – or transition from one to the next seemingly at random. Like sketch comedy, Keanu often places more emphasis on getting from A to B than the tiny-but-crucial details that make that flow seem natural.
Key and Peele’s ability to disguise the non-story of Keanu by simply being so watchable is easily Keanu’s greatest strength, but you can’t help but feel as if they were wasted on a largely juvenile movie here. There’s virtually no subtext to Keanu, nor is there any real attempt to explore the potent racial satire that its mistaken-identity storyline leaves it open to, but at the end of the day, “Dude, it’s a movie about a cat.”
Keanu is now playing in theaters. It is 98 minutes long, and is Rated R for violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity.