The masterminds behind the brilliant Key & Peele sketch comedy are back at it in their hilarious and off-beat kitty (not to be confused with kiddie), and lover overdue, feature-film debut. Keanu stars Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as two friends in desperate need of a little shake-up from their mundane and routine lives and who are driven to a world of street crime in order to retrieve their stolen cat.
After being dumped by a longtime girlfriend, a down-and-out Rell (Peele) can’t seem to find a glimmer of light in his life – beyond the spark of his bong. Trapped in a melancholic haze, things begin to turn around when he falls for a furry feline escapee from a drug lab cleaned out by two vicious assassins known as the Allentown Boys (also played by Key and Peele in heavy make-up and dress). He quickly names his new friend Keanu, and the nurturing bond between man and feline resurrects Rell’s will-to-live, channeling his creativity by photographing a movie-themed calendar where he poses Keanu and recreates scenes from iconic films, like the “Here’s Johnny!” bathroom scene from The Shining.
His best friend Clarence (Key), meanwhile, is readying himself for a long weekend without wife Hannah (Nia Long) and daughter as the two set out on a weekend long trip with family friend Spencer (Rob Huebel), whose wife has been struck, conveniently, by digestive illness. This is clearly an attempt to copulate with Hannah, something that a jealous Clarence takes note of with leering suspicion.
Clarence is the type who plays it safe, avoiding danger at all cost while decked out in khaki shorts and neat buttoned-up shirts. He painstakingly eschews black stereotypes, seemingly foreign to any kind of street smarts or toughness normally associated with black characters. To get a feel for Clarence’s persona it’s important to note that he’s a superfan of George Michael’s music with popular tracks like “Freedom” peppered throughout the film’s soundtrack.
The two friends are about begin their weekend of fun when Keanu is kidnapped during a trip to the movies. A clue from pot dealer Hulka (Will Forte) leads the two to a seedy strip club, run by 17th Street “Blips” gang leader Cheddar (Method Man), which sets them out on a journey to retrieve Keanu, who Cheddar has now renamed New Jack – complete with a thuggish fashion makeover.
This is where the fun begins as both Rell and Clarence pose as tough guys, taking on the personas of Tectonic and Shark Tank, respectively, as they claim to be the Allentown Boys from the film’s opening scene. They can have the cat back, but on the condition: they have to help distribute a new potent synthetic drug, playfully named called “Holy Shit,” with the help of their tough crew: Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), Trunk (Darrell Britt-Gibson), Bud (Jason Mitchell), and Stitches (Jamar Malachi Neighbors)
It turns out that Clarence is surprisingly convincing as a tough guy, able to squeeze out of any situation with his tough guy comments. Much of the film’s comedy is a result of Clarence’s set-up as a goody two-shoes who, as it turns out, is more than capable in wielding a dual persona – even to the point of surprising his bumbling cohort Rell.
One scene that synthesizes both his tough guy act and his actual persona, as Hi-C and Rell head to Anna Faris’ home (playing herself) for a deal, Clarence educates the group about the “badassness” of George Michael – stretching the truth a bit about the color of his skin – but still proving there’s more than a person’s surface. I like to think of this segment as a galvanizing moment that uses subtle insight in “blackness” and identity, while at the same time melding irreverent zaniness with the absurd and ridiculous expectations of race as Clarence illustrates this with his unyielding love for his favorite artist, despite skin color.
In the world of Keanu it’s not entirely unbelievable nor ludicrous for Clarence to love George Michael, and he proves this by teaching the real tough guy criminals to appreciate and expand their musical tastes and, the process, their minds. When it comes to pop-culture everything from music to movies is broken down to polarizing categories of black or white art, rigidly associating one to a particular race or group of people and then defining that group by those guidelines.
As wacky and fun as Keanu can be, the whole ordeal feels episodic, like a series of loosely connected skits stitched together to create a full-length film around the idea of this cat (who disappears for 30-minutes in the second act), likely a result of Peele’s (co-writer along with Alex Rubens and director Peter Atencio) experience in television. Despite their many extraordinarily silly and funny bits, the lingering feelings of disjointedness could have benefited from a more cohesive plot.
When the guys poke fun at tough talk and posturing with their adopted personas, their cluelessness and lack of street smarts are clearly the funnier moments in the film. Their antics lead them to near-death scenarios and gunfights that are a riot, while the titular kitten does what he does best: simply being a cute red herring plot device. Keanu is the type of absurd fare that fans expect from the irreverent duo of Key and Peele, who manage to string along a thin concept by the sheer power and allure of their comedic talents.