‘Keanu’ cannot recreate the Key and Peele magic

by Andrew Kingsley | 5/2/16 5:01pm

Fresh off the set of their recently concluded Comedy Central show “Key and Peele,” the shape-shifting Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele make their big screen debut in “Keanu” (2016). Like many television comedians have discovered, particularly Saturday Night Live cast members, cinematic audiences are unwelcoming of stars traversing media. Fortunately, the dynamic duo’s antics translate into a feature narrative film, while maintaining the same sketch comedy style which made them household names.

Here, the duo takes on familiar personas, with Key the straitlaced, J. Crew clad suburban husband Clarence, and Peele the deadbeat, newly single Rell wallowing in self-pity. When an adorable kitten comes rapping on Rell’s chamber door, he soon forgets about his own lost Lenore and rediscovers the joys of life. Yet the kitten comes with serious baggage; two gangs have also claimed Keanu as their own. Soon it becomes a game of, forgive the pun, cat and mouse to reclaim the missing kitten. To reclaim his stolen beloved, Clarence and Rell must take on new names (Shark Tank and Tectonic), integrate themselves into the local gang, the 17th Street Blips, and join them through all their nefarious drug dealings.

At its core, “Keanu” is a cross-dressing film akin to “Some Like It Hot” (1959) or “White Chicks” (2004), in which faked identities promise hilarious hijinks. But instead of bras and wigs, Clarence and Rell must drop their voices and spew the N-word to convince the local thugs. A constant threat of exposure permeates the narrative, which their increasingly absurd cover-ups punctuate with palliative humor. Watching Shark Tank convince the gang members of George Michael’s blackness then Tectonic futilely attempting to exonerate himself of three violent murders was one of the film’s few moments of lucidity. Ironically, these set pieces numbered too few; in an attempt to formulate a convincing and coherent narrative and temper their traditional ridiculousness, Key and Peele actually rob the film of its full comedic potential. Famous for their multi-layered, unpredictable sketches, the duo unfortunately creates a fairly monotone and reserved comedic mode. Instead of creating more situational humor, Clarence and Rell protest too much, bickering ad nauseam and wasting precious comedic time.

Moreover, the film’s central conceit of a missing kitten pursued by deadly gangs saps it of any obscene bite; this is Key and Peele declawed. The ribald, often racially oriented idiom of their show becomes neutered for mainstream audiences. Everyone must be a softy not-so-deep down when they worship a mewing furball. “Keanu” cannot replicate the volatility and insanity of “Seven Psychopaths” (2012), in which the stolen Shih Tzu provokes a diverse chain of explosive psychos. Here, everyone is a cross-dresser, from the gang members to Clarence’s uptight wife, just waiting to reveal their gooey insides. While Key and Peele don’t attempt to replicate McDonagh’s black humor, it perhaps would have made the feline focus more palatable. Under this kitten umbrella, even the excessive violence and slo-mo shootouts feel oddly juvenile.

Yet perhaps Key and Peele mock today’s obsessive cuteness fetish; in a culture where dogs have Instagram pages and Halloween costumes, what’s to stop gangs from fighting over a kitten? The number of “awws” coming from the audience became comedy; like trained animals they cooed with delight at the pre-programmed moves of the CGI-generated kitten. Nonetheless, the film ends up more like an aggrandized cat video, with an initially engrossing central theme that tires after overuse. “Keanu” needed a hit of catnip, and instead took a catnap midway through from which it never really awoke.

Rating: 7/10

“Keanu” is now playing at the Nugget Theaters at 4:40 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.