By Matthew McKibben | April 29, 2016
Director: Peter Atencio
Writers: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens
Starring: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jason Mitchell, Jamar Malachi Neighbors, Luis Guzman, Will Forte, Nia Long, and Rob Heubel
Hot off the zeitgeist snatching success of Key and Peele on Comedy Central, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key seem primed to follow the lead of countless sketch comedy actors and actresses before them as they try for mainstream success at the movies. The jump from TV success to movie success is a tightrope walk of sorts. For every Jim Carrey or Bill Murray who goes on to change the game, there are countless others like Al Franken, Chris Kattan, David Spade, et al., who make easily forgotten movies and then spend the rest of their careers falling in and out of pop cultural relevance. This isn’t to say it’s all success or all failure, and this also isn’t a critique on anyone’s skills at comedy, but the jump from mega success on the small screen to mega success on the big one takes down more people than it elevates.
I only bring that up because I think greatness is in Key and Peele’s reach. I’m a sketch comedy show junkie and Key and Peele was easily one of my all time favorite comedy sketch shows. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key took the “Greatest Sketch Show on TV” baton that was passed down from the likes of classic-era SNL, The Kids in the Hall, mid-90s cult favorite Mr. Show and Chappelle Show, and created one of the smartest, most funny sketch comedy shows of all time. If I had to put money on if they’d have Will Ferrell style success or Molly Shannon style obscurity, I’d bet on the former.
If anyone seemed like they could make the jump from the small screen to the big one, it was Key and Peele, which is ultimately what makes Keanu such a disappointment. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly not great. The first (and most important) criteria for a comedy is whether or not it makes me laugh, and Keanu certainly checks that box more often than not. But the movie felt a little muddled in its tone and because of that felt inert and without much bite.This is more of a discussion about great comedic movie vs standard comedic movie, than it is about whether this is a funny movie or not.
Written by star Jordan Peele and Key and Peele writer Alex Ruben and directed by Key and Peele director Peter Atencio, Keanu plays at times like a Zucker brothers style knock off of movies like New Jack City and John Wick, but then at other times plays it a little more serious, like a Judd Apatow branded movie. In Keanu, a recently dumped and depressed Rell Williams (Peele) finds a whole new lease on life when a murdered drug dealer’s kitten shows up on his doorstep. When a rival drug boss (Method Man) steals back the kitten, Rell and his friend Clarence (Key), decide to shed their nerdy, pushover personas and go on a mission to find the lost kitten, even if it means pretending to be dangerous killers and hardened drug dealers.
In some ways, the movie’s scatterbrained “what kind of comedy am I” approach makes sense. Key and Peele was a show that used 3-5 minute sketches to attack and explore a wide array of social issues and broad topics, using everything from observational humor to full-on movie parodies to accomplish the task. At times, Keanu feels like an entire sketch stretched out over 2 hours, but it also feels like there are other sketches happening in the periphery. Sometimes, the kind of humor used in any given scene would butt up against the kind of tone or humor used in another scene. They’re trying to make you laugh and they’re pulling out all the stops to make that happen, even if it kind of muddles the overall tone of the movie itself. Keanu would have been stronger had it more firmly planted its flag in “parody” or “Apatow” territories, instead of simultaneously trying to do both.
The essential thrust of the story is how would two nerds navigate the worlds of New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood, and how would that process change them? That concept of navigating two worlds is something Key and Peele have explored many times over in their show. It’s a theme that obviously interests them as actors and performers, but what works in 3-5 minute sketches becomes a little worn out and tired when stretched over two hours. The script could have used a little more focus and imagination, instead of relying on using the same gag over and over again, especially when the gag in question is something they had already perfected on Key and Peele. If you have seen this sketch, you’ve basically seen the one recurring gag that they beat to death over the course of the movie. Again, it’s funny and I laughed, but I wish they had spent more time on the script as I left the theater wanting (and expecting) more.
There are other laughs (and surprises) in the movie, and it’d be unfair to give anything away in a review. It’s in these unexpected turns that the movie really worked for me. I wish they had more fully embraced the absurd as I think parody is ultimately where their strengths as performers are. I’m curious to see where they go from here. While not completely cohesive as a movie, there’s enough here to recommend and I hope the movie is successful enough to get them another chance to show what they can do. As I said above, my first and most important criteria for a comedy is whether or not the movie makes me laugh, and this movie certainly does that. But its inconsistent tone keeps it from truly taking flight as something that will be memorable for years to come. I’m not selling my Key and Peele stock quite yet, as for a first movie, it’s not bad. But I hope going forward, they’re able to find or create material that either fully embraces its zaniness or ditches the absurd completely for a more grounded style of humor. When you try to do both in the same movie, you get a movie that feels more designed to fit as many sketches as possible into a cinematic format, instead of a movie that will really hold up over time.