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Keanu: Key and Peele, Minus the Laughs

In their new action-comedy, the duo are too nice to draw blood.

Warner Brothers Pictures

Stubbornly refusing to take flight, Keanu is a likable action-comedy that never figures out how to be hilarious. Which is strange, because it gets so close so often that you keep assuming the talented people behind this movie will eventually figure it out. But Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the guys responsible for Key & Peele, just don’t get there—or, even worse, maybe they actually think they did. Unfortunately, the difference between pulling off a deft sketch and delivering a satisfying feature-length film can be enormous, as Keanu’s protracted runtime will constantly remind you.

The movie has a clever premise. Clarence (Key) and Rell (Peele) are best-bud cousins living in Los Angeles, both of them hopeless, ineffectual nerds. (Clarence is concerned that his wife, who’s away for the weekend, may be cheating on him, while stoner Rell can barely get off the couch after his girlfriend dumps him for having no ambition.) But just as soon as Rell finds purpose in his meaningless life by adopting an adorable kitten he names Keanu, he’s heartbroken to return home one evening to discover the cat missing and his place ransacked. For convoluted reasons, Clarence and Rell’s search brings them to the lair of dangerous drug dealer Cheddar (Method Man), who mistakes them for a pair of legendary lethal assassins. As a result, our two geeks have to keep up appearances, pretending to be hard-ass gangstas, if they want to rescue Keanu and get out alive.

Keanu was directed by Peter Atencio, who was a producer and director on Key & Peele, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the film has a distractingly TV-ish, five-minute-attention-span quality to it. There are mild attempts to turn Keanu into a parody of operatic crime thrillers and overblown action flicks, but Atencio and co-writers Peele and Alex Rubens (a writer and co-producer on Key & Peele) fail to find much inspiration in their setup. Keanu has one joke, and it gets bent in lots of different directions: These bright, sensitive black heroes don’t fit traditional media representations of “hard” African-Americans, but they need to pretend around these armed, ignorant hoodlums. Consequently, there are lots of gags involving Clarence and Rell feeling incredibly squeamish about using the N-word but letting the epithet fly to convince Cheddar and his thugs that they’re from the streets.

The namesake cat in ‘Keanu.’
Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

On their show, Key and Peele skewered race relations and shallow cultural depictions of blackness, but in Keanu they don’t seem able to develop a sustained societal critique—instead, they just keep hammering at the same obvious point. Neither Clarence nor Rell is particularly funny as a character, so when they switch into their faux-gangsta personas—Clarence’s thug name is Shark Tank—the transformation doesn’t work as humor or commentary. (And the film is even less persuasive when nice-guy Clarence’s newfound “blackness” helps him be more assertive to win back his unhappy wife.) The way the cowardly characters over-enunciate the word “murder” like it’s in a foreign language is one of the better throwaway gags, and it’s mildly amusing when softie Clarence sells Cheddar’s battle-hardened crew on the lie that feel-good pop artist George Michael is actually a down-since-day-one O.G. But the cousins’ panicked attempts to maintain the gangsta charade never go anyplace surprising or rewarding.

Key and Peele’s rapport was always one of the best things about their Comedy Central show, which they decided to end last fall after five acclaimed seasons. Friendly and silly where other comics were vicious and caustic, they radiated a sunny glow that gave their barbs a light touch. (They might be the most well-adjusted comedians to anchor a hit series since Jerry Seinfeld.) But that goofy tone paired with Atencio’s unimaginative direction only leaves Keanu toothless. If the jokes were better, it wouldn’t matter, but Keanu feels like it was conceived by Clarence and Rell, who are too nice to draw blood. Keanu is pleasant as opposed to hysterical, and, despite its R rating for language and violence, it’s never anarchic or edgy.

That sweetness has its merits. Peele develops a cute chemistry with Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), the lone woman among Cheddar’s posse. And the kitten is exceptionally lovable, even when it’s dodging bullets during a gun battle. But it’s a sign of Keanu’s lack of comedic gusto that its one really “nutty” sequence, involving Rell and Hi-C facing off with an awkwardly manic and drug-addicted Anna Faris playing herself, falls completely flat. (The scene’s best joke is that Hi-C, who’s black, doesn’t recognize the actress from any of her many “white” roles until Rell mentions Scary Movie.) Rather than madcap or gonzo, the sequence feels labored and off-rhythm, as if everybody involved knew there was something funny to be mined here but couldn’t find it. Now imagine a whole movie like that. Many people were already in mourning over Key & Peele’s end—Keanu may give that loss an extra sting.

Grade: C

Looking for more movie recommendations? Check out the latest episode of the Grierson & Leitch podcast.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site