Arts + Scene » Screens

Nine Lives

Key and Peele go to the movies




KEANU. Right off, there is something conceptually funny about grown men going to great, life-threatening lengths just to find — and fight violently over — a cat. And for anyone still with me after that sentence, as well as those on the fence, the involvement of Michael Keegan-Key and Jordan Peele gives this movie a shot at greatness.

Key and Peele, making their film debut here as leads, are stars of the brilliant Comedy Central series bearing their names. In five seasons, the shape-shifting show has ventured into bizarre corners with such sketches as a parole officer with a puppet companion, an infant assuming the mannerisms of Forest Whitaker and, most famously, Luther, who serves as President Obama's outraged "anger translator." Alongside fellow Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, Key & Peele forms a triad of groundbreaking and breathlessly hilarious comedy series that use the advantage of leads that a.) are also writers and showrunners, and b.) are not white males, which allows them to stretch their comic perspective and audacity into new territory. Schumer made the leap into movies with great aplomb in Trainwreck within the subgenre of Apatow-land. But Key and Peele's Dada-esqe shadings faces the possibility of an uneasy fit for a feature film, and Keanu shows where it works and also falls short.

The cat of the title is a gray tabby kitten who escapes a violent shootout in a downtown Los Angeles drug den, eventually arriving at the door of Rell (Peele), who is tearfully mourning being dumped. When his best friend Clarence (Key) arrives to boost his spirits, that task has already been handled by the kitten, which Rell has christened Keanu ("I think it's Hawaiian for peace"). But a couple weeks later, Rell finds his house ransacked and Keanu missing. Crestfallen, he presses his neighbor and weed dealer Hulka (Will Forte) for information. The dreadlocked and zoned-out Forte makes use of his brief screen time for some classic stoner lines ("Oh, I've just been in the next room trying to build a motorcycle") and tips Clarence and Rell off as to who might've done the cat-nappery.

This is where the plot gets frantic. When it works it's hilarious, and even in the spots in between it's not bad. Clarence and Rell meet with crime boss Cheddar (Method Man) and his crew, who have taken a great liking to Keanu (and renamed him "New Jack"), and try to pass themselves off as the feared Allentown Brothers seen in the movie's opening massacre.

Some of their ruse unfolds in sustained scenes that are hysterically funny, especially with the two improvising the absurd 'hood names like Tectonic and Shark Tank with barely a second's thought, or the responses they come up with when grilled by Cheddar ("Who the fuck are you?" "Who the fuck aren't we?"). Much zaniness ensues in the dusk-to-dawn crosstown hurly-burly.

There are a pair of strong running gags in Keanu: button-down Clarence and Rell working fast on their feet to blend into a hardcore, violent world of drug-dealing killers; and those men, be they assassins, crime bosses or their underlings, having such a great affection for a kitten (but hey, he is pretty cute — I never heard so many audience "awwwwws" at a movie in which more than a thousand rounds of ammo get fired off). But those two underpinnings would work great for a 12-minute sketch on their TV show, and likely even better, shedding the exposition and sped up into a daffy frenzy. But even stretched out into a film and burdened with subplots, it really is funny more often that not. A joke involving Clarence's love for the music of George Michael gets run far enough, then somehow so long that it gets even funnier, before finally going back to being run way too long. On the other hand, a surreal sequence with a drugged-out, samurai sword-wielding Anna Faris is great, especially as it plays out into mordantly dark territory. The criminally undercast Faris (here playing herself, no less) is just the kind of thing a slow stretch of the movie needs.

Much worse movie debuts from troopers of the sketch-comedy and TV world have there been, and director Peter Atencio and co-writer Alex Rubens, who penned the script with Peele, have not made the dreadful mistake of putting their leads into roles that stray from their comic strengths. Hopefully we'll look back on Keanu as an imperfect but funny first film from the duo. And hey, maybe two cats next time — it's a demographic waiting to be tapped, people. R. 98m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

— David Jervis

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.


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