Keanu—the feature-film debut of TV comedy team Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele—is surely the biggest disappointment at the movies so far this year. It's one thing to see a bad movie. It's another thing when you're fully expecting a good one.
For five seasons on Comedy Central, Key & Peele delivered high-octane funny business by blending sharp writing, kinetic physical comedy, and inspired goofiness. The idea of a movie seemed natural and promising, and the first trailers were very, very funny. Alas, Keanu is one of those movies where the three-minute preview is superior to the film. It seems that short-form comedy is the duo's natural habitat.
Straight-arrow Clarence (Key) has a weekend free when his wife and kids go out of town. He calls his stoner cousin, Rell (Peele), to see a movie. That's about as wild as Clarence gets these days. When they return from the show, they find that Rell's apartment has been trashed, and his beloved kitten, Keanu, has been catnapped. A visit to Rell's pot-dealing neighbor (Will Forte in white-guy dreadlocks) reveals the set-up we'll endure for the next ninety minutes: Keanu is in the hands of hardcore gangbangers, and our mild-mannered heroes must infiltrate the L.A. underworld to retrieve the kitty.
It's a one-note premise, and the filmmaking team never reaches for anything more. Director Peter Atencio rolls out scene after scene of Key and Peele nervously impersonating gangsters as they dig themselves into deeper and deeper trouble. Their natural chemistry endures for the first half-hour or so. Peele's laconic charisma bounces just right off of Key's manic patter, and the two find funny individual moments concerning George Michael, a potent new street drug called Holy Shit, and a gang called the Blips—outcasts from the Bloods and Crips. There's also a funny recurring gag concerning a strip club called HPV.
But it's really the same joke, over and over, and what's frustrating is that the performers clearly know it. Their riffing gets progressively more desperate, and the stink of flop-sweat hangs over the film's entire second half. In an effort to juice things up, the director inserts scenes of graphic violence, shot in stylized slow-motion, clearly intended to lend an ironic John-Woo-vibe to the proceedings.
C'mon, fellas. Stylized ultraviolence satire is decades old. It's genuinely surprising that the film would fall back on such tired bits when it has two comedy innovators to showcase. Clearly, a choice was made at some point in the studio process to make Keanu a safe, staid foray for Key and Peele. It's depressing, mainly, operating at the intellectual frequency of the second-rate, hard-R comedies we get by the dozens each year. When the finale collapses into standard-issue gun fights and car chases, the despair is palpable. What a waste.