By: 3-Deep (Three Beers) –
It’s always a gamble when sketch comedy groups transition into feature films. Some turn out pretty good, like The State’s Wet Hot American Summer. Others turn out very good, like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, or The Holy Grail. Pick your favorite. One or two are borderline masterpieces, like SNL’s Wayne’s World. But most of them, like Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, The Whitest Kids U’Know’s Miss March, or Smosh: The Movie, are not very good. At all. And more than a few comedy groups find out the hard way that what worked in small doses doesn’t always translate quite as well onto the big screen.
Well, except for All That’s Good Burger — which fails to fall under one category altogether. It’s at once amazing and terrible in equal measures. It can’t be explained. It defies human logic, as well as the rules of cinema. Its presence hangs over us like the enigma it is, as a mystery the human race will never, ever solve.
It was hard to know for sure where Key and Peele would land with their first feature film, Keanu. Sure, their acclaimed Comedy Central series is easily among the brightest, funniest, and most culturally relevant sketch comedy shows to come on television in some time. In fact, maybe ever. Their mix of gleeful nerdiness, never-say-no enthusiasm, and biting racial commentary was a combination all their own, and it was spiked wonderfully by their delectable, irresistible chemistry together.
But it wasn’t clear how well they would do in a longer medium. They would have more time on their hands and less limitations. But they also had to keep the energy and laughs coming for longer than a few minutes at a time. So while we know their potential on the small screen, it remained to be seen just how well they held up on the big one. And sure enough, they landed along the lines of Derrick Comedy’s Mystery Team: somewhere in the middle.
Keanu isn’t necessarily a bad film. It has a couple laughs, and it knows how to keep itself watchable and mildly amusing at times. But it’s missing that spice. You know, the one that made their TV show such a hit. While it has some pop, it needs a little more crackle, and perhaps some more zip, to truly be on the level of the show’s fairly consistent greatness.
Its premise is simple enough. Recently dumped Rell (Jordan Peele) is depressed out of his wits until he finds a purpose in life with an adorable little kitten that winds up, literally, on his doorstep. Adopting him and giving him nothing but love and attention, Rell is overwhelmed with joy with the introduction of this delightful new addition to his life, but his happiest is short-lived. After coming home from a night at the movies, he’s horrified to discover his fuzzy feline friend is kidnapped and taken by local gangster Cheddar (Method Man), the head of the Blips — a.k.a. the rejects of the Bloods and the Crips. Determined to find the super photogenic puss, Rell and his straight-laced suburban cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) must lose their geekiness and toughen up in order to fool Cheddar and his team. But their ambitions to pose as hardened criminals aren’t as easy as they planned, and Rell and Clarence find themselves in more danger than they ever expected.
It’s a little familiar, but in a ’70s/’80s sorta way. Keanu harkens back to the buddy comedies of yesteryear, like the loosey-goosey comedies that starred The Blues Brothers or Cheech and Chong. It rides fast and doesn’t get boggled down by too many rules. It knows, to an extent, what it aims to achieve, and they’re familiar with what their fans want and expect from them at this point. And that’s an admirable ambition for the versatile funnymen, but one that ends up a little less than purrfect in the end.
One cannot stress just how adorable the titular tomcat is in this film. Even if you’re not a cat person, like me, you can’t help but have your heart warmed by the little guy. He steals every single scene he’s in with just the most innocent, most awwwww-worthy look of cute cuddliness. And though we’re dealing with a lot of thugs and no-nonsense criminal characters here, it’s easily to see why everyone and their brother wants to have this rascal in their arms to hug, kiss, and squeeze. He’s a natural, and maybe the most screencap-friendly pet to ever come to the silver screen. In our cat-obsessed online universe, expect to see pictures, memes, gifs, the works of this guy everywhere — and I mean everywhere — on the web once Keanu sneaks its way into cyberspace. Just you wait and see. He’s a superstar in the waiting. Watch your territory, Grumpy Cat, Lil’ Bub, and Shironeko. You’re about to be pissed on. Big time.
As for the other, you know, human performers, they’re not bad either. As a showcase for the TV superstars, Key and Peele hold themselves well on the big screen. Their instant chemistry together is just as palpable and sincere as ever, and their natural rapport and improv skills together help smooth over some of the film’s laziness. Peele is meant to have the bigger showcase of the two, doubling as a co-writer beside Key and Peele writer/producer Alex Rubens. But it’s often Key that earns the bigger chuckles with his zany expressions, wandering eyes and high octave voice. He’s like a human bobblehead come to life, and he owns up to it in every way he can. His “whatever-it-takes-for-a-laugh” approach can become grating and tiresome at times, but it’s often more welcomed than not.
And in supporting roles, Method Man and Will Forte, as the dreadlocked, wannabe gangsta drug dealer Hulka, make the most of what they can during their time. Although neither are used to their full advantage, they’re always welcome presences on screen, and I love seeing the Wu Tang Clan performer’s second life as a comedic performer. But the big standout here is The Carmichael Show‘s Tiffany Haddish, as Hi-C, who demonstrates herself as a performer to watch for in the years to come. Her ferocious, imposing presence can always be felt, but she also knows how to let her guard down enough to go toe-to-toe with the two veteran sketch comedians. I’ll be very excited to see where she goes from here.
And while these performers do what they can to make this material work, they can’t overcome Keanu‘s tediousness after a while. Meant as a set-up to the Keanu Reeves actioner John Wick, the premise is okay enough, but it’s hard to sustain something this lightweight for over an hour. And it’s evident Key and Peele are struggling to make this one work, like a flailing sketch from their MadTV days. Their efforts aren’t in vain, but they ‘re not enough to make the film really click. The screenplay is missing a re-write or two to really sell this one-joke film. There are some solid laughs, but they come across a little too flimsy and not as hard as you would expect from these super-talented performers. In the end, it comes across kinda mild by their standards. They clearly deserve better, and it’s hard to really compliment them for making something that just ends up a little bit iffy.
With their show, Key and Peele always found a way to add an extra punch to their comedy, usually with some sneering commentary on racial politics. Keanu, at first, seems like it’s going in that direction — with two less-than-hard dweebs pulling a Breaking Bad and pushing themselves into drug criminal territory for the sake of their feline family member — but it never quite finds its point. It begins to loose itself in its by-the-numbers plotting after a while, and while longtime Key and Peele director Peter Atencio gives his feature the nice, sleek cinematic look that he imbued the Comedy Central series with, it’s not enough to overcome some of the bumpiness in the script. It’s certainly not without some signs of effort, but it feels like it’s pushing itself back from really getting the main prize.
It just needs a little something extra — just something to push it over the edge — to really make it sell. I’m not going to be one of those guys who says Keanu should’ve been a sketch-only, because I do think there’s some serious potential here. I just think these boys lost in along the way, and that’s a shame. Their first movie shouldn’t be their last, and I don’t think it will be, but it’s hard not to wish they stayed on the small screen if this is what they’re offering us so far.
Their characters, while affable, are just a little too flat to work. Their motivations boggles down to one (Peele) willing to stop at nothing to get his cat back and the other (Key) trying to own up to his inner man when his masculinity is put on the line with his wife and kids. Neither are really explored deeply, and that kills some of the laughs that should have been gained. Again, Keanu is just maybe two or three or five steps away from getting the gold. Instead, it settles for bronze, and that shouldn’t be the case here. Especially from these two!
Hardcore Key and Peele fans will find enough here to like, I bet. It’s not a terrible movie; it’s just a mediocre one. After Ricky Gervais’s less-than-stellar Special Correspondents and the borderline-awful Mother’s Day, it shaped up to be a mediocre weekend for comedies. What Keanu lacks in their comedy duo’s astute eye and keen satire, it almost makes up for in sheer gumption. These two make the most out of what little they gave themselves, but it’s not enough to make it to the finish line. I’m sure they’re find their stride in cinema in a few years time, if they keep up with it. They almost have what it takes here, but they need some more puss-pective into what it needs to work. It’s not a cat-astrophe, but it’s a little too fluffy for its own good. Am I kitten around too much?
Keanu (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: anytime Keanu is just too cute. Be responsible with this one.
Take a Drink: anytime Key goes out of his way to earn a laugh.
Take a Shot: for every celebrity cameo.
Take a Drink: every time they use slow-mo.
Take a Drink: every time someone gets shot.
Take a Shot: for that George Michael fantasy sequence. Maybe take two. It’s beautiful.