Keanu (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Keanu (2016)

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Rell is having one of the worst days of his life.  His longtime girlfriend has left him heartbroken and alone in his home.  Just as his cousin Clarence comes to cheer Rell up, he hears a little scratching and meow at the door, where he finds a kitten he names Keanu.  Just as Rell's life is starting to pick up he comes home to find someone has broken into his apartment and kitten-napped Keanu.  Rell, determined to make his life whole again, drags the reluctant Clarence into the criminal underworld to rescue Rell's feline companion.  Peter Atencio directs Keanu from a screenplay written by Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens, and stars Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, and Jason Mitchell.

Yeah, I'd do anything for my cat tooKey and Peele is dead.

Long live Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

Their brilliant show on Comedy Central came to an end late last year despite its continued popularity.  As Key put it, "It was just time for us to explore other things, together and apart.Keanu arrives just a few months after the last episode of Key and Peele and, saints be praised, it's a great sign of what Key and Peele are going to be up to when they're working together.

The big thing to remember about Keanu, and what made so many of their sketches fantastic on Key and Peele, is they don't condescend to any of the genres they work with.  Key and Peele are huge fans of every form of entertainment and do their best to work within a style even if they're making some satirical jabs at it.  On its face, and based on that wonderful trailer, Keanu may seem like a farcical take on action-comedies in the vein of Pineapple Express.  But, as with the best of their sketches, Key and Peele are using the form of an action blockbuster to function as a loving nod to the bullet ballets they love, all while delivering an assortment of great character beats and some sly commentary.

"Understated" might not be the word many associate with the work of Key and Peele, but the best moments of Keanu work in this vein.  Sure, you've got your slow-mo gunfights and adorable kitten costumes for little Keanu, but the insecurities of Clarence (Key) and Rell (Peele) are what drive the comedy.  On Clarence's end, his background training corporate yes men finds a comfortable and heartwarming place amid the stereotypical gangster supporting characters.  While with Rell, he gets to counteract his perpetually stoned post-breakup sadness with pure love and care for little Keanu.

Don't expect a seamless illusion of Keanu as he's played by seven different cats, but they're all adorable.

Don't expect a seamless illusion of Keanu as he's played by seven different cats, but they're all adorable.

Nothing showcases the characters strengths better than the lengthy bonding sequences Clarence gets with a trio of suspicious gangsters.  When they're swapping stories about how they each got their scars, the gangsters all have sad stories of family gatherings gone awry, while Clarence gets to embellish the surgery that took out his appendix.  It's a sweet moment as we see how Clarence coaxes them into trusting him by putting his stories in their context.  The comedy works so well because, at a superficial level, we get to see a bunch of supposedly hardened criminals near tears and singing along with George Michael.  At the deeper level the screenplay, written by Peele and Alex Rubens, toys with how black masculinity is stereotyped in movies.  If the moment was just a bunch of tough lookin' guys who happened to like George Michael the joke would've been cheap, but by having Clarence bond with them it creates a bridge away from the stereotype and empathizes with what each of them has gone through.

Aside from the wonderful sentimental heart behind Keanu, there are a lot of absurd jokes.  Director Peter Atencio, who helmed all the Key and Peele episodes, knows that lingering on the absurdity of anything will dull its comedic value, so he when the visual jokes come they do so quietly and move out fast.  My favorite involved the drug kingpin, Cheddar (Method Man), and his cat tower throne which appears in a hallucinatory drug scene.  When Keanu does linger visually it's for the purpose of making a quick dialogue-based joke, like when Clarence marvels at how Rell's renewed work drive resulted in a series of adorable recreations of famous scenes from other movies with little Keanu as the focus ("Heeeeeeeere's Kitty!")  Clarence thinks this can make Rell some money, Rell quickly responds that this is just for personal use which - for those of us who are a bit cat obsessed - is the perfect response for someone who's gotten attached to their kitty.

Key and Peele's genre devotion leads Keanu to look a heck of a lot better than most other movies playing right now.  Jas Shelton's cinematography moves from one extreme to the next nicely.  He hits the overly dramatic, underlit, and somewhat ominous reveal that Keanu's been catnapped nicely (coupled, of course, with appropriately sad and dramatic acting from Key.)  The kitten action sequences, and I love I get to use that phrase in a review, are impressive as they combine the dusty high-beam lighting of numerous shootouts while catching some delightful clumsiness of Keanu as the little guy runs from danger.  None of these moments are shot as a joke, even if they have jokes in them, and give more weight to Rell's quest to get Keanu back.

The cinematography and performances are funny but never condescend to action movies even in Keanu's more melodramatic moments.

The cinematography and performances are funny but never condescend to action movies even in Keanu's more melodramatic moments.

Keanu isn't perfect, and it's the longer moments of comic absurdity that suffer.  There's one particularly undercooked comic set-piece where Rell accompanies Hi-C (a great Tiffany Haddish) to sell some drugs to Anna Faris.  That's basically the start and end of the joke, as Rell recognizes they're selling drugs to a movie star, and she's acting kinda crazy.  Peele and Haddish play the whole thing a bit too straight, and the sequence doesn't have the escalating sweet humor of the parallel scene of Clarence bonding with the criminals.  The Faris sequence just doesn't go far enough with her outlandish behavior, and the shot of Faris' bullet-ridden body is framed so well with the distraught Rell and Hi-C escaping in the background that I could easily see the moment playing in a more serious crime drama.

But those moments are rare, and counterbalanced by Key and Peele's specific sense of humor.  We see uptight dad types in comedies all the time, but how overbearingly bland does a dad have to be to think his daughter wants to watch nothing but Shailene Woodley movies?  Granted, this means he'll eventually have his daughter watch the excellent The Fault in our Stars, but it also means watching sub-Hunger Games franchises.  Jokes like this may fly over some viewers heads, but show how versed Key and Peele are in all manner of media.

Keanu isn't as funny as the best of Key and Peele, but it accomplishes something more ambitious just being an extended-length sketch.  It shows Key and Peele's love of genre film-making, be it on the large or small screen, can carry the heart and intelligence of their work for a tight 90-minute run-time.  If you're feeling depressed, or just need a screwy pick-me-up, there's nothing better out there than Keanu.

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Tail - KeanuKeanu (2016)

Directed by Peter Atencio.
Screenplay written by Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens.
Starring Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, and Jason Mitchell.

Posted by Andrew

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