Keanu (2016) by Peter Atencio
Review by Zach Dennis
There was always a natural flow to the social commentary and comedy that was executed in the sketches of Key & Peele on Comedy Central. It was cutting, poignant, and observant, but also had a wind of expertise and empathy that cut through the subject and found the heart beating inside. Their presence and minds would be perfect for the big screen and a feature film, and most of Keanu does just that, but it also shows that creating sketches for a comedy program and attempting to create an almost two-hour long feature film are two vastly different forums.
Keanu stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Clarence Goobril and Rell Williams (they continue to excel at fake names) — one a highly domesticated family man and the other, a pothead dealing with a recent break-up. As Peele’s Rell cries on the couch, remembering the times he had with his ex-girlfriend, he hears a scratch at the door and a kitten is revealed to him. Little did he know, the kitten was the pet of a nefarious drug lord, who had just recently been shot down at his place of business by a pair of hitmen (also played by Key and Peele).
Rell, and really the whole audience, becomes immediately attached to the kitten, who becomes his new best friend and breaks him from the pain of his girlfriend leaving him. That is until the kitten, named Keanu, is stolen and forces the two men to begin tracking down the whereabouts of his pet, starting with Hulka (Will Forte), Rell’s neighbor and drug dealer.
Hulka points the men to another group of drug dealers led by Cheddar (Method Man), who upon arrival reveal that he is in possession of Keanu. The two men decide to pose as the two hitmen, who Cheddar suspects them to be, and go along with his tasks in order to win Keanu back.
The one trait of Key & Peele that was paramount was their ability to navigate racial commentary with both intelligence and humor. Keanu is yet another venue for this ability and the duo have a few strong moments that seem reminiscent of their famous sketches. In one scene, Clarence is sitting in his mini-van with a few of the gangsters (most notably one played by Jason Mitchell from last year’s Straight Outta Compton) and they ask for him to play whatever music he has on his phone.
Clarence hesitantly allows them to start playing his playlist, which is filled with songs by George Michael. As the gangsters begin to question him, he sells this story of how George Michael is the real OG and cuts to the heart with true lyrics that speak to your soul. The gangsters agree, and in a short amount of time, the group is singing along to some of Michael’s hits.
A lot of the racial commentary of Keanu is playing with our expectations of the black, gangster stereotype and how we may perceive these people one way, but they also possess passions and issues just like the rest of us. With Key and Peele playing as the audience’s surrogate, they begin to realize and play with the idea of these gangsters being interested in things outside of drug dealing even though it is something that has controlled their lives up to this point.
This idea works for a few scenes, but never seems to have the momentum to flow together for the entire runtime of the film. Much like with some of the work by The Lonely Island with Hot Rod or MacGruber, Key and Peele show a great ability to deliver five-to-six minute segments that excel at being both poignant and funny, but they don’t seem to sustain longer than how long a typical sketch would. Like those two examples, Keanu has genuinely funny moments, but also shows that the duo needs more experience on the bigger scale to show they have the ability to carry a longer script and be able to hold our attention the entire time.
Keanu breaths a lot of freshness into the comedy genre, and director Peter Atencio shows an adept hand at creating new ways to get a laugh, but the entire film feels like a first-run for this comedy duo — which is okay because it is their first film together. It shows a lot of promise, but again reminds us of the difficult task of carrying a comedy script over the course of two hours and being able to be engaging the entire time.
This concept may be one of the most difficult in all of cinema to accomplish, and with a few more outings, this pairing may be able to succeed in the future. But for now, Keanu is a first draft in a line that will hopefully keep going and going for Key and Peele.
At the very least, see it for the cute kitten though.