At its best, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s show Key & Peele was brilliantly stupid, prodding at social and racial mores in such absurd contexts that they managed to reorient taboos and prickly material into something hilarious, revealing and unifying. It’s a credit to the two’s immense talent that their show could have episodes that brought together topics as inflammatory as slave auction parodies to one-note symphonies like “Substitute Teacher” and the “East/West College Bowl” sketches, the latter honoring the pure joy of hearing names like A-Aron and Xmus Jaxon Flaxon-Waxon.
Above all, Key and Peele have become masters of code-switching, building characters who move fluidly between class structures and social modes. Keanu, the duo’s first film effort, is abstractly all about this ability to examine the gulf between their naturally dorky, innocuous personas and the more aggressive, rooted stereotypes attached to black people.
But while the movie’s jokes occasionally lock into the same winding, mounting comic chaos that’s recognizable in their best material, it fails to recognize something essential in the change of medium—movies require a consistent internal logic. Keanu is undoubtedly too thin, often feeling like a feature-length extension of skits like “Loco Gangsters,” but it’s too easy to criticize it for length.
In five-minute bursts, Key and Peele’s sketch comedy needed to make very few distinctions between the borders of realism and fantasy, but Keanu constantly attempts to navigate the space between pulp satire like Black Dynamite and something more mundane like the Judd Apatow midlife-crisis universe.
The movie has less of a plot than a bare framework for the arc of its two main characters—cousins Rel (Peele) and Clarence (Key). Reeling from a breakup with his longtime girlfriend, Rel is a rudderless mope reduced to weed comas and a takeout-strewn floor, but one rainy night, he’s bestowed with a gift from the gods—an impossibly adorable kitten who shares a name with one of the premier badasses of our cinematic age.
One night after going out to a movie with Clarence—starring Liam Neeson, naturally—Rel returns home to an open door, and a horrible realization that Keanu has been catnapped. Interrogating his weed dealer neighbor (Will Forte doing his best Riff Raff impression) for information, Rel and Clarence soon tangle themselves up in the business of a ruthless dealer, Cheddar (Method Man), and the 17th Street Blips, a gang that overthrew the Crips and Bloods.
From the moment they walk onto Cheddar’s headquarters, a strip club called HPV, Clarence and Rel step out of their element and into their notorious dopplegängers known as the Allentown Assassins. Desperate to regain his kitty, Rel puffs up his chest, pulls down his pants, and intersperses his sentences with awkwardly placed four- and five-letter words. And both Key and Peele are able to make this type of material work for a long time on the strength of their improvisational skills, bringing a relentless modulation to their twisting of cadences and pronunciation.
But directed by show regular Dave Atencio, Keanu feels unusually sloppy in its conception, stalling for each narrative movement with riffs that go on endlessly, and even when Key and Peele are able to bring around a joke through sheer repetition, much of the material feels unusually general. The best moments find a synthesis between the characters’ real-life personas and their masks, as with a scene in which Clarence treats a show-off moment like a work team-building exercise, but these moments are few and far between.
Filled with spurts of gory violence, Keanu is deeply indebted to the action movie canon and, even more specifically, action movies through the lens of black men, indulging in both formal flourishes like John Woo-aping operatic gunfights and light nods to Hype Williams’ early aughts nocturnal dreamscapes, with club scenes shot through dread and reckless energy.
But placed into a movie where these characters at least began as something akin to real people, the wild tonal shifts from traumatic reaction to exaggerated shtick completely negate the stakes. And while much of the successful humor comes from fish-out-of-water situations where Key and Peele struggle to fit in, the intricacies of the racial and gender politics run from troubling to disastrous.
It doesn’t need to work as some grand social commentary, but if you’re making a movie about two black men who navigate masculinity by pretending to be gang members, there needs to be some understanding of what’s at risk. Keanu at least attempts to articulate the motives of some of these characters, but it’s hard to shake the sense that they are barely more than props.
Tiffany Haddish, Jason Mitchell and Method Man all deliver strong efforts, managing to parody gang culture without feeling glib, but the largest moments of humanity come from punchlines about George Michael rather than specific character details. And while the gleeful appropriation of the Wham frontman’s epochal “Freedom” is amusing every time, it’s also noticeable for the sheer number of times the joke is recycled.
It’s clear that Key and Peele have tremendous gifts as performers and writers, but this is not a piece of filmmaking. It’s a scattershot, intermittently brilliant full-length sketch that settles for easy targets, glossy imitation and a hollow moral core.
Director: Dave Atencio
Writers: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Will Forte, Luis Guzmán, Tiffany Haddish, Jason Mitchell, Method Man
Release Date: April 29, 2016