Everything I know about Key and Peele comes from their two appearances on Epic Rap Battles of History. Which is to say that I don’t know the first thing about either one of them. I know they had a Comedy Central show that was quite popular, but I never saw a single episode and I have no opinion of them one way or another.
Yet here I am reviewing Keanu, which was quite clearly made as a vehicle for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The two of them star and produce here, and Peele co-wrote the script. As for co-writer Alex Rubens and director Peter Atencio, both of them claim credits on every single “Key and Peele” episode.
Then we have the titular Keanu, a kitten who escapes the crossfire of a nasty drug-related massacre in L.A. He finds shelter in the home of Peele (let’s not even pretend it matters what the character’s name is), who just went through a nasty breakup. So Peele showers the kitten with affection as his way of recovering through the breakup, and a couple of weeks later, his house is broken into and Keanu is missing.
Why did anyone break into his house? Why did anyone steal Keanu? Let me spare you the suspense: It’s a load of bullshit so contrived and paper-thin, glossed over so quickly and carelessly, that it really doesn’t matter.
Anyway, Keanu is now in the care of Cheddar (Method Man), leader of the 17th Street Blips. So named because this gang is allegedly tougher than the Bloods and the Crips put together, you see. Peele goes out to get his kitten back, alongside his cousin, played by Key. Luckily, Key had nothing better to do, since his wife and daughter have gone out of town with a friend of the family.
Things naturally go sour at first, but then Key and Peele are mistaken for a legendary pair of assassins (also played by Key and Peele, of course), and the two of them are tasked with pulling off a couple of jobs in return for the kitten.
To get this out of the way, the kitten works as a damn fine gimmick. There’s a reason why cute cat videos and pictures are so immensely popular online: Kittens are immediately sympathetic, and watching them in silly situations is inherently funny. It works even better in this context, as the sight of something so small and cuddly makes for a hilarious contrast with all the gang-related violence going on around him. Plus, it never gets old watching all of these hardened thugs as the sight of this kitten makes their hearts melt. It’s funny and poignant and relateable all at once.
(Side note: Keep an ear out for a brief drug sequence, in which the kitten is voiced by none other than Keanu Reeves himself in a last-minute cameo.)
But there’s a serious problem here. In case you missed it back in the plot recap, let me be more clear: Keanu has been kidnapped. That is the catalyst for the entire story, and it happens 15 minutes in. Which means that Keanu has to be kept offscreen for the main characters’ motivations to make any kind of sense. In turn, this means that the kitten — the movie’s namesake, and easily the biggest draw for any Key and Peele newcomers — is entirely absent through huge swaths of screen time.
So without the kitten, what are we left with?
Well — as we’re explicitly told by his wife (played by Nia Long) — Key is playing someone who always goes with the flow and doesn’t seem capable of making any kind of independent decision. As for Peele, the whole point of the story is that he’s so heartbroken over getting dumped that he doesn’t know who he is without Keanu. So basically, these characters are hollow shells devoid of any personality, entirely unremarkable by design. And it gets worse.
A huge part of what makes these characters so bland and milquetoast is that they live sheltered suburban lives. So of course they have no idea how to blend in with so many violent gangsters who aren’t afraid to use their actual working guns. Which means that Key and Peele have to blindly pretend at being someone they don’t know the first thing about, especially after they get mistaken for legitimately badass killers who, lest we forget, are still floating around somewhere.
To sum up: This is a standard fish-out-of-water mistaken identity story, complete with all the usual plot turns we’ve seen a billion times before, all based around a one-joke premise with a joke that gets repeatedly pounded into the ground.
That said, there are some variations on the joke of “Oh, look at the clueless middle-class suburbanite trying to act all gangsta!” A prominent example is George Michael, whose works are a kind of shorthand for “music that only boring white folk would love.” By the end of the film, George Michael and his greatest hits are played so many times, given so many references, and used for so many jokes that he should’ve gotten his name above the goddamn title.
Then we have Anna Faris, who works to humiliate herself and everyone around her (read: Peele and his drug-slinging colleagues) as a whacked-out wealthy drug addict. Strangely, while Faris gamely plays herself as part of the joke, her real-life husband never even gets so much as a mention. I mean, I’m sure Chris Pratt was probably too busy shooting a hundred and one other projects to stop by for a cameo, but not even so much as a mention or a joke? Wasted opportunity, in my opinion. But I digress.
What makes the whole one-joke premise so much weaker is that it seems like the cast was divided cleanly into two halves, each acting like they’re part of an entirely different movie. On the one side are Key, Peele, Nia Long, Anna Faris, Will Forte, and Rob Huebel, all of whom turn in extremely broad performances. None of them are remotely credible as functional or fleshed-out human beings, and some of them don’t even register as anything more than plot devices. But on the other side are Method Man, Tiffany Haddish, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jason Mitchell, and Jamar Malachi Neighbors, every one of them trying their damnedest to turn in legitimate performances and lend some dimension to these characters.
(Side note: Luiz Guzman pokes his head in near the end as a prominent kingpin. He’s somewhere in between the two camps, but leaning toward the former.)
I should perhaps mention that the gangsters in this movie are pretty much all grouped in the “more authentic” camp. This was to be expected. There has to be a contrast between the fake thugs and the real thugs, or the central “fish out of water” joke doesn’t work. Unfortunately, Key and Peele are both so obviously fake and their new criminal friends are so beautifully convincing that it ends up doing more harm than good.
Every time Key and Peele come out with some lie that’s made to be transparently fake and outrageously lame for comedic effect, the actual gangsters look that much dumber as they fall for a ruse that anyone could easily spot, throwing suspension of disbelief further and further out the window. Furthermore, as Key and Peele share the screen with Method Man and Tiffany Haddish, it only draws more attention to how the supporting cast is putting so much effort into crafting actual characters while the stars of the picture are just as clearly not.
Keanu is a film that consists just about entirely on one joke repeated over and over again, which means that the whole picture rests on its two stars and their ability to keep wringing humor from the tired “fish out of water” premise. There are some other jokes here and there — in particular, everything involving the kitten is pure gold — but nothing funny enough or prominent enough to outweigh the mountain of “clueless suburbanite” gags. And there are some good performances in here, but they’re all shoved aside in favor of comedians who are focused on being funny above all else.
The characters are thin, the plot is even thinner, and the humor isn’t used toward anything remotely intelligent or thoughtful. This is, from start to finish, nothing more or less than a showcase for Key and Peele. So if you’re a fan, you should already have bought your ticket, seen it, and left a scathing reply in the comments below. Otherwise, this is a rental at best.