The Key and Peele movie Keanu poses a question for brainy cult figures who want to make slapstick action comedies for the multiplex: Do they have the courage of their deadpan? The parodies that make up TV’s Key and Peele are outlandish, but they’re played more or less straight-faced, and the seemingly meandering conversations that break them up are buoyed by the stars’ deliciously tricky rhythms. You need a special kind of pacing for comedy like that — the kind that gives studios the heebie-jeebies, which get passed on to tyro filmmakers. The upshot is a business littered with the bones of cult comics who tried to make mainstream movies and lost their distinctive pulse.
Keanu is cause for hope. In my frequent role as “laugh accountant” for mainstream comedies, I’d estimate two-thirds of it works, and when it’s good it’s sooooo good — good enough to make you want to see Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key and director Peter Atencio and co-writer Alex Rubens do it again and go farther out.
Here, they begin with a classic premise for movie clowns: Two distinctly un-macho guys are forced to impersonate manly men of action. In this case the pair have to play two frightening, hooded assassins (also played by Key and Peele) known as the Allentown Brothers. Early in the ruse, Rell (Peele) advises Clarence (Key) to try not to sound like Richard Pryor’s legendary reedy, tremulous impression of a white man, which leads to one of the duo’s favorite dichotomies: black men acting a little too insecure, effeminate, stereotypically “white” versus black men acting a little too alpha, cocky, and stereotypically “black.”
What kicks off Keanu is a “feminine” idea: Rell — having just lost a woman — develops a deep love for a fiendishly cute kitten that shows up on his doorstep and that he names “Keanu” because he thinks it’s Hawaiian for peace. When Cheddar (Method Man), leader of the gang the Blips (rejects from the Bloods and Crips), mistakes Rell’s house for one belonging to the stoner dealer (Will Forte) next door, the drug lord makes off with the cat — which he names “New Jack.” (The cat is also beloved by a Hispanic gang, which calls it “Iglesias.”)
To retrieve the cat, our heroes infiltrate the Blips under the names Tectonic and Shark Tank. They use the N-word liberally if not always artfully. Their bizarre comebacks spin your head: “Who the fuck are you?” “Who the fuck aren’t we?”
For Rell, the cat is all, but Clarence has a larger goal: to develop a persona that will appeal to his wife, Hannah (Nia Long), who’s off on a trip with the couple’s daughter, the daughter’s friend, and the friend’s father — a white man (Rob Huebel) with clear designs on Hannah.
The stereotypes here are not especially innovative, but Key and Peele are a scream when their sensitive natures keep overriding their attempts at fitting in with the gang members. It’s a fabulous gag when Clarence — forced to ride along with the menacing gang — asks each to introduce and say two things about him- or herself, and funnier yet when the members go along with it and prove rather sweet.
There is one sublime extended centerpiece, which cuts between Rell and the surlier-than-the-male female Hi-C (Tiffany Hadish) as they make a drug delivery to a Hollywood mansion and Clarence, in the car with the others, attempting to account for why he’s got so much George Michael music. (“He had no positive role model in his life.”) The ever-treasurable Anna Faris (as herself) is the owner of the mansion. She’s glittery-eyed and manic, and the scene builds inextricably to carnage — it could be a Tarantino parody. And the George Michael inserts take the sequence to another level.
The more formula parts of Keanu frankly stink. The climax is a shoot-out and car chase that the director doesn’t know how to stage and edit. Worse, it’s a grim reminder that Key and Peele have presumably had to pander to their presumed audience to get the movie made. Everything that’s good in the movie slows down or distends or interrupts the dumb plot. Everything that drags it down is for the sake of pepping it up.
Two-thirds, though: not bad for a first feature. And a mad-cute kitten. Help it make some money this weekend so they can all do it again.