Joyce Glasser reviews Keanu (July 15, 2016)
Keegan-Michael Key (37) and Jordan Peele (45) are best known for their American cable television comedy sketch Key & Peele and for appearing in the FX series Fargo. Now, as producers, they reunite themselves as the stars of Keanu, with Peele co-writing and Key & Peele’s television director Peter Atencio directing.
Keanu – which has less to do with the famous actor Keanu Reeves, than with a cute kitten named Keanu – is one long comedy sketch. The ludicrous, even absurdist, plot is clearly a vehicle for the pair to entertain us which they do surprisingly well, even if the film is not quite as funny as it should be.
Not surprisingly, it all begins with a kitten, and, more typically perhaps, a Mexican drug ring. King Diaz’s drug facility is raided by the notorious killers, the Allentown Boys (a heavily disguised Peele and Key), who murder everyone, but take a liking to Diaz’s cherished kitty, Iglesias. The cat escapes from its new owners when the police arrive, and travels through L.A., ending up at Rell’s (Jordan Peele) doorstep.
Rell, who, is particularly vulnerable having been dumped by his girlfriend, falls for the kitten and renames it Keanu. Rell’s cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) plans to keep his despondent cousin company over the weekend as Clarence’s wife (Nia Long) and daughter are spending the weekend with friends of the family.
When they return from seeing a Liam Neeson movie, they find life imitating art. Rell’s house has been turned upside down and Keanu is missing. Rell, who is more upset over losing Keanu than over losing his girlfriend, visits his next door neighbour, Hulka (Will Forte), who is the local drug dealer. This time, Rell wants information not weed. Hulka reveals that he is in debt to a local gang called 17th St Blips, and they may have ransacked the wrong house.
The absurdity begins when the cousins pose, none too convincingly, as small time gangsters Tectonic and Shark Tank to infiltrate the 17th St Blips. Clarence, who is a pretty square husband and doting father, faces the biggest challenge as he doesn’t swear or do drugs, hates violence and prefers George Michael to criminal rappers Cassidy and T.I.
The ‘Tank’ boys make it past a suspicious female bodyguard Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish) only to be mistaken for the Allentown Boys (whose names are Smoke and Oil Dresden) by the gang’s leader, Cheddar (Method Man). Sure enough, Cheddar had taken the kitten and has renamed it New Jack. A tough sounding Rell negotiates with Cheddar, not for territory, guns or money, but for a kitten. Cheddar agrees to release New Jack to the Allentown Boys only if they serve as advisers to his gang as they embark on the sale of a powerful new drug called ‘Holy Shit’.
The absurdity piles on during the course of this adventure with most of the comedy coming from the cousins’ attempts to act out their roles while being frightened and shocked at the violence they experience and the risks they run. In one hilarious sequence, while Rell and Hi-C enter the first client’s ranch house, Clarence remains in the car with three members of Cheddars’ gang, trying to convince them that the music he is listening to is really cool. Gradually he persuades the men that George Michael uses code and symbolism to speak to gangs and all those from broken home in a deprived inner-city who face a grim future.
Most of what follows, however, is more chaotic, with a shootout at a drug king’s (Luis Guzman’s) villa and a dream sequence in which a drugged Clarence hallucinates that he is talking to the kitten (the voice is that of Keanu Reeves). Eventually Clarence,(whose wife wants him to act more like himself and less like the image of what others expect of him), discovers his inner strength and manhood, and Rell overcomes some hang-ups of his own. If the cousins are not who they seem to be to the criminal world, either is Hi-C, putting a romance for Rell on the horizon.
There is real chemistry between Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and their years of working together give them the familiarity, banter, and ease of communication that cousins would naturally have with one another. They play off each-other so well, and are so likeable, that a less clichéd and silly premise would have just gotten in the way.
While there are plenty of comic situations, you could wish for a few more belly laughs, while the scene in which Rell and Hi-C visit drug client Anna Faris (playing herself) is not only not funny, but in poor taste. A tense game of Truth or Dare turns nasty when Faris dares Hi-C to shoot Rell. In the ensuing confusion Hi-C, who is supposed to be taking lessons from tough-guy Rell (Oil Desden), shoots Faris and her friends dead in a graphic fashion.
You do not have to remember Susan Atkins, the Manson gang member who participated in the murder of actress/model Sharon Tate and her friends in a similarly remote canyon home, to feel uncomfortable with this scene, even if it, too, is not what it seems.