In the first film carried entirely by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the creators of the recently shuttered sketch-comedy show “Key and Peele” take a slender idea about the search for a cute kitten that has gone missing and spin it into comic – well, not gold exactly, but gold-plated base metal.
“Keanu,” their consistently funny and well-sustained feature debut – co-written by Peele with Alex Rubens, and directed by Peter Atencio, both of whom had previously worked on the TV show – strikes that careful sweet spot midway between silly and smart. Like much of the duo’s work, the film is a comic meditation on blackness and whiteness (both Key and Peele are biracial). That is, if one can use the word “meditation” to describe something that, in place of deep, slow breathing, is accompanied by periodic bouts of laughter.
The action is slow to pick up steam but starts to get going when Rell (Peele), a stoner photographer who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, takes in the titular stray kitten, quickly falling in love with the animal and naming it after the star of the “Matrix” films. But when Keanu – who is actually pretty adorable – goes missing after Rell’s house is broken into by a drug gang, Rell enlists his nerdy cousin Clarence (Key), a corporate team-building specialist, to infiltrate the gang and help get his cat back from its leader (Method Man).
That fish-out-of-water premise is the stuff of a five-minute skit, not a feature film. But in the hands of Key and Peele, it turns into something more substantial, allowing the two to play off of their characters’ inherent uncoolness.
“You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy,” Rell tells Clarence after they realize how much they stand out in a strip club filled with heavily armed, trash-talking thugs. (Clarence replies that Rell sounds like John Ritter – “all the time.”) Soon, they’re deeply immersed in the gangsta lifestyle, or as well as one can be while wearing a golf jacket, extolling the virtues of singer George Michael and trying – without much success – to avoid violence and illegal acts.
In the end, it’s not whiteness and blackness that Key and Peele are spoofing, but the cliches that have grown calcified around those notions: White people are stiff and soulless; black people are violent criminals. “Keanu” works to undermine those biases, mainly by embracing them so tightly that they start to fall apart on their own.
But this is a comedy, not a TED Talk. Bullets and jokes fly – along with abundant instances of the n-word – in a farcical plea for cross-cultural communication, all focused on a cat so squee-inducing that literally everybody wants it: Rell, the gangbangers, a pair of murderous goons (also played by Key and Peele), and a rival drug lord (Luis Guzmán).
When the dust settles, someone is going to have to go to jail (and it’s probably not who you’d expect). “Actions have consequences,” sniffs a police office.
That’s quite true. But in “Keanu,” they’re only semi-serious.
Two and one-half stars. Rated R for violence, crude language, drug use and nudity. 100 minutes.