Key & Peele Cough Up Hairball With Kitty Comedy "Keanu"

Sketch comedy’s long, dubious fling with the silver screen has had its victories (just ask Mike Myers), but its depths have been of the Journey-to-the-Center-of-the-Earth variety (also ask Mike Myers). Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of Comedy Central’s erstwhile hit “Key & Peele” figured to thrive in moviedom, with numerous supporting appearances under their belts – most notably in David Wain’s heinously underrated “Wanderlust” – and a healthful taste for subversion. But their “Keanu,” an action-comedy that improbably marries John Woo-style gunplay to Disney’s “Oliver & Company,” isn’t nearly as eccentric as its premise suggests – or as funny.

The screenplay follows two friends, Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key), as they descend into the seedy underbelly of the drug world to retrieve Rell’s new pet kitten, Keanu.

We begin on an outstanding action sequence that sees Keanu and his previous human in the midst of a gang-style execution. The kitten escapes and ends up on the steps of Rell’s suburban abode, reinvigorating the recently dumped artist’s passion for life. With the aid of his camera and a knack for miniature work, Rell and his adorable kitty go on to recreate some of Hollywood’s most iconic scenes (their take on “Se7en” is a highlight).

But Rell’s next door neighbor is drug dealer named Hulka (Will Forte), and Keanu is soon snatched up by a group of thugs. Equipped with nothing but pastel polos, fake tough-guy intonations, and some badly improvised nicknames (Tectonic and Shark Tank), our heroes infiltrate a gang – the 17th Street Blips – and confront their leader (played by rapper Method Man) in a wildly misguided attempt to rescue their four-legged friend.

The chemistry between Key and Peele is as strong as ever, their real-life friendship translating beautifully to feature length. Key’s straight-laced act leads to some hilarious freak-outs with Peele’s barely-there cool acting as a nice tonic. Peel’s Rell is unflappable until he’s not, bringing a much-needed volatility to a pretty one-dimensional character. Moreover, “Key & Peele” alum Peter Atencio’s direction is true, faithfully recreating the kind of action movie beats that action-comedies often get wrong (see: Tim Story’s “Ride Along” series). This is a handsome film whose relatively small budget ($15 million) comes off as at least twice that, wielding its talented cast and modest production values impressively.

The script is another matter. It’s front-loaded with laughs and all but bereft of sociopolitical commentary (the “Harold & Kumar” series made similar observations about race in America much more effectively). Worse yet, it leans painfully hard on a few low-hanging pop culture references. Specifically, there are dozens of George Michael jokes. Beginning early in act II, the movie wrings every possible laugh out of the English pop star’s discography and then continues to squeeze for a further forty minutes. By the time the film finds Clarence in the midst of an accidental drug trip that takes him inside the musician’s famous “Faith” music video, the gag has worn thin. But fear not! There’s a five-minute reprieve before the next George Michael joke.

An initially amusing sequence in which Rell and gang member Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish) deliver drugs to actress Anna Faris (playing herself) is even more problematic. As Atencio cuts back and forth between the drug deal and Clarence enlightening a minivan full of gangsters (including Jason Mitchell from “Straight Outta Compton”) as to the wonders of George Michael, the never-ending scene plays like a workprint, going on well past the point of comedic saturation. It’s a nightmare of pacing, crushing the momentum formed by the film’s set-up. From then on, this feline farce is a blend of labored plot mechanics (how to keep Keanu out of the hands of his owner) and room temperature gags (see: a strained voice cameo that isn’t nearly as funny as it sounds on paper) that fail the admittedly inspired premise.

The innate likability of all three stars – Key, Peele, and the cat – is nearly enough to get “Keanu” through its various rough patches. The upshot is a sweet, good-natured movie whose shortcomings are screamingly obvious, underlined throughout by the same likability that sustains it. This could have been better, should have better, and in the case of Key and Peele, likely will be better the next time around. They’ve more than earned another shot.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: April 29, 2016
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Peter Atencio
Screenwriter: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens
Starring: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Will Forte, Tiffany Haddish, Jason Mitchell, Method Man, Nia Long, Rob Huebel, Luis Guzman
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity)