Because the creative minds behind Keanu previously worked on MadTV before getting their own series, Key and Peele, it seems lazy to say that the movie feels like a five-minute sketch extended for 95 more. If the tired and worn out premise fits, though…
In the grand tradition of movies like A Night at the Roxbury and Superstar, Keanu sustains genuinely funny material for sixty whole seconds at a time before reminding you that the movie’s concept wore out its welcome after about twenty minutes.
The plot is set in motion by a kitten who escapes a grizzly shootout between rival drug gangs and finds his way to the doorstep of loser Rell Williams. Rell (Jordan Peele) is suffering a recent break-up with his girlfriend. She left because he’s basically a slob who is going nowhere in life. When Rell’s cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) learns of the devastating break-up, he rushes over for consolation, but finds Rell is already taking solace in caring for the kitten, whom he’s named Keanu.
In an early example of one of the bits that genuinely made me laugh, Rell’s obsession with Keanu leads him to make the kitten the centerpiece of a series of photographs that he plans on making into a calendar. Each picture is a scene from a different movie (e.g., The Shining, Beetlejuice) with Keanu as the star. It’s as adorable and hilarious as you might imagine. I thought the pop culture influenced comedy would be something I could latch onto, but moments like these are too few and far between to sustain laughter throughout the picture.
Most of the jokes are built around Rell and Clarence feeling compelled to adopt “gangsta” personas, the better to find Keanu when the kitten is stolen by a street gang made up of rejects from the Bloods and the Crips. (So, the Blips. Naturally.) That joke gives you an idea of the kind of comedy Key and Peele are after. Instead of building comedy out of character development and situation, most of the jokes are built around the “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if…” scenario. Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if gang members who got rejected from the Bloods and the Crips got together and made a gang called the Blips? Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if the strip club the Blips worked out of was called Hot Party Vixens, and the sign on the building was shortened to H.P.V.?
Okay, that last one made me laugh pretty damn hard. But the fleeting nature of this hummingbird style of comedy – take a fraction of a second on each joke and hope more land than don’t – makes the bulk of Keanu feel strained. A major factor in that strain is the performance style of Keegan-Michael Key as Clarence. I’ve never watched an entire episode of Key and Peele, but I’ve seen plenty of the individual sketches that have circulated on the internet. In the sketches, as well as the few movie performances I’ve seen him in, Key has a constant going-for-broke quality to almost every second he’s on screen that translates as desperation more than anything else. I wrote about this in my review for Pitch Perfect 2, where Key seems like he’s in a completely different movie from the rest of the cast, his performance was so loud as to be distracting.
There are moments when this style pays off. The comedic centerpiece of Keanu is a short sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in either of the duo’s previous TV shows. Clarence has a hallucination after smoking the Blips' newest drug creation, which he mistakes for weed. It’s really “Holy Shit,” a combination of PCP, meth, and DMT. Clarence is also obsessed with George Michael, so during his trip he finds himself in the middle of the music video for the song Faith. Director Peter Atencio marries Key with the video using a grainy videotape effect that any child of the 80’s will know instantly. From there, Clarence is confronted by Keanu. In a major coup, Key and Peele got the real Keanu (Reeves) to voice the kitten. The use of The Matrix’s atmospheric score makes the trippy sequence work perfectly.
The fact that the funniest, wackiest moment in the whole movie lasts about five minutes speaks to the hit-or-miss quality of Keanu as a whole. The cameos, besides the real Keanu, are bizarre and unfunny. For instance, SNL alum Will Forte continues to prove you never know what you’ll get each time he steps in front of the camera. He plays Hulka, Rell’s weed dealer and the reason Keanu gets abducted in the first place. Obsessed with black culture, Forte sports corn rows and grillz. His funniest moment comes when he begs not to be killed by gang members because “I know everything about hip-hop!” The rest of his jokes are dead on arrival, though, like when we discover Hulka is living in and dealing weed out of his mother’s house. Anna Faris plays a wacked out version of herself who is always chasing the next high. Her scene, which falls flat despite (or because of) Faris’ attempts to ham it up to the Nth degree, sets up a ludicrous plot twist, even by Keanu’s farcical standards.
Like the tiny cap and gold chain the leader of the Blips puts on Keanu, whom he dubs New Jack, the movie Keanu is capable of flashes of brilliance. But the best moments from even the most hilarious sketch comedy bits can very seldom sustain a feature length film. Keanu would have worked brilliantly in a short-form setting, but as a movie it purrs instead of roars.
Why it got 2 stars:
- I seem to be on an island here. The Rotten Tomatoes rating for Keanu as of this writing stands at 78%. Comedy is an intensely subjective thing, and to me Keanu just wasn't that funny. It has moments to be sure, but not enough to make it a success.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I had brief exchange with Josh Larsen over on Letterboxd about Keanu that started because he recently watched and talked about the movie Hollywood Shuffle. Larsen thinks there is a lot more going on in Keanu than I do, and he thinks it is a movie in the tradition of Hollywood Shuffle, a biting satire of racial stereotypes in Hollywood. I totally disagree, but I enjoyed the thoughtful discussion.
- I compared Keanu to movies like A Night at the Roxbury and Superstar in the review. That might have been a bit harsh. This movie isn't out-and-out dreadful like those movies are.