There's something tragic about becoming unhip.
Alas, unhip I am.
As a film critic, I absorb pretty much anything and everything related to film. Being the only film critic for an indie website, this largely leaves television viewing behind and, thus, my familiarity with the television-based comedy of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key amounts to my being able to say "Yep, I've heard of 'em."
So, I went into their feature film Keanu with an open mind aware only that the central storyline involved the "cutest kitten ever" and that it had zero to do with a certain American actor.
As I sat down to pen this review, I spied a respected friend's social media posting that Keanu was "the best comedy I have seen in a long time" and another film critic peer's far less enthusiastic review.
The truth? Somewhere in the middle.
Keanu as a concept wears mighty thin even within the confines of its relatively modest 98-minute running time, though there's no denying that I laughed, a lot, during that 98 minutes.
Oh, and that kitten? I gotta' admit. It's a mighty cute kitten. Cutest ever? That might be a stretch, but I don't think my attention has been as held by feline adventures since Morris the Cat or possibly those weird yet wonderful days working at an Indianapolis strip joint called Hots.
That's for sure another story.
Speaking of Hots, much of the action in Keanu centers around the 17th Street Blips, think the Bloods and Crips, and their central hangout, a strip club called Hot Party Vixens.
Think about that for a minute.
Peele and Key star as Rell and Clarence, cousins living different yet similar lives dancing on the edge of meaningless. The weed-smoking Rell has just been dumped by his latest girlfriend and is nearly inconsolable, while Clarence has become a white man in a black man's body with a seemingly sterile marriage and a rather unhealthy obsession with 80's singer George Michael.
Then, Keanu enters the picture with a history that isn't readily apparent, he is a cat after all, and suddenly the grief-stricken Rell turns all that pot-fueled obsessiveness directly toward the impossibly adorable kitten. Of course, if you've ever seen an 80's action comedy, the style of filmmaking going on here, then you already know that Keanu's going to fall into the wrong hands. Cheddar, basically a reincarnation of Method Man's The Wire character Cheese.
Rell and Clarence won't be havin' that.
If you have zero tolerance for comedy that borders on the absurd, Keanu isn't for you. The film's plentiful laughs nearly all require that you be able to suspend belief and surrender to the ridiculousness of it all. It quickly becomes clear that Keanu, the kitten, is one pussy that seriously gets around. a cat beloved by more than one person willing to do just about anything to get her back including Rell and Clarence.
Keanu is funny. I mean, seriously funny. After all, isn't that why you go to a comedy? While I'm a film writer and I'm somewhat obligated to approach film criticism from an analytical perspective, the truth is I'm also a lifelong film fan who would be the first to admit that sometimes simply laughing is good enough.
Keanu has a storyline that is stretched way too thin, a sketch comedy skit that is turned into a feature-length film. Of course, so is just about every film ever to come out of the SNL family of films along with the vast majority of Eddie Murphy and any number of other 80's comics. While not the best among these films, Keanu is far from the worst.
Keanu features mostly "safe" Peele and Key comedy that lacks the bark and bite of the immensely talented duo's best television work. While they occasionally flirt with the racial themes often found in their material, they never really delve right into it here.
But, again, despite its flaws Keanu is a genuinely funny film.
Keanu is filled to the brim with pop culture references including a somewhat unexpected extended cameo, actually extended a bit too long, from a popular comedy actress turned wife of a sudden superstar. Keanu is much smarter about these pop culture references and infuses them into the fabric of the film rather than throwing them at the screen in order to get a reaction. From where adorable Keanu gets his name to a certain familiar Beverly Hills Cop setting and numerous tips o' the hat throughout the film to beloved action comedies and, for those familiar with Key & Peele, to their now ended comedy sketch show.
In addition to feeling overly long, Keanu lacks anything resembling an emotional attachment, or at least some meaning, that would bind us to all the silliness that unfolds. The comedy sketches, and really the film is a series of comedy bits, are awfully funny but even in the most absurdist comedies you have to buy into something in the film...the relationships, the core conflict,..something. There's nothing beyond simply being funny, a fact that feels like at least a wee bit of a failing for comics known for creating much more substantial comedy. Keanu flirts with some meaty material and every time it crossed the big screen I found myself wishing they'd dug in a little deeper, whether dealing with the cultural shifting often required in America that changes language as spoken in the corporate world and that spoken within the home or dealing with the emotional masquerade often required of African-American men in a society that still holds fast to its stereotypes of them.
Keanu is a good comedy that could have been a brilliantly groundbreaking one.
Key and Peele are both incredibly good here even when the material doesn't live up to their immense talents. Director Peter Atencio, who worked with the duo on their television show, feels a little bit like Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy's genuinely funny husband who has found himself thrust into a directorial role primarily due to connections. This may sound like an insult - it's not. Atencio has promise here, but a more experienced director would have reined in some bits, extended others, edited the heck out of that certain cameo, and likely tapped into the film's absurd humor in a slightly more effective way. Too often, Keanu feels like a television show instead of a feature film.
Will Forte is top notch as the drug dealing neighbor who tells Clarence and Rell about the 17th Street Blips, while Method Man hits a homer as the pussy lovin' Cheddar. While the women aren't given as much to do here, Tiffany Haddish projects the closest thing we get to an emotional here as Hi-C, while Nia Long is criminally under-utilized as Clarence's wife.
So, yeah. Both friends are right. Keanu does have laughs pretty much from beginning to end, though they are laughs that never really add up to as much as they should and never really mean much of anything. From some comics, that's about as good as it ever gets. From Key & Peele, you expect just a wee bit more.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic