’Nu Kids on the Block: Key and Peele Make Their Silver Screen Debut with “Keanu”

The first film offering from one of the best comedic duos of the past decade is a victim of its own format.

The worst thing about Keanu, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s feature-length debut, is that it feels like an overlong Key and Peele sketch. (That’s the titular duo’s wildly popular Comedy Central show if you’ve been without Internet access for the past four years.) But if Keanu’s biggest flaw is that it feels too much like one of the funniest shows on television, it’s doing something right. And thanks to Key and Peele’s impeccable delivery and limitless charisma, Keanu’s worst quality also happens to be its best.

The film opens with a massacre. A pair of Goth assassins called The Allentown Brothers eviscerates a gang of drug dealers, one of whom has a pet kitten. The kitten escapes in the fracas and finds his way to newly-single Rell (Peele), who names him Keanu and channels all of his post-breakup energy into loving him. When Keanu is catnapped by the Blips—a gang so hard they were kicked out of both the Bloods and the Crips—Rell and his buttoned-down cousin Clarence (Key) have no choice but to go undercover and attempt to retrieve him.

Essentially, three or four main jokes are repeated over and over again—square nerdy black guys pretending to be gangster, actual gangsters getting in touch with their sensitive side, a white drug dealer with corn rows and a grill, you get the picture—and a handful of original jokes are sprinkled around like garnish. Those jokes, while hilarious, aren’t enough to carry the movie on their own, and there are moments where Keanu narrowly avoids feeling like a Scary Movie–era spoof. That it does avoid it, however narrowly, is almost entirely because of its cast.

Key and Peele transform stale tropes with flawless delivery and comedic timing, and while they can’t quite make them fresh, they do make them funny again—funny enough that you don’t really care that the last time these gags felt original was about fifteen years ago.

Key and Peele transform stale tropes with flawless delivery and comedic timing, and while they can’t quite make them fresh, they do make them funny again—funny enough that you don’t really care that the last time these gags felt original was about fifteen years ago. Moreover, the duo is endlessly watchable, as are Method Man (playing a gang leader named Cheddar, a nod to Cheese, his character on The Wire), Tiffany Haddish (Cheddar’s right hand woman, Hi-C), Nia Long (woefully underused as Clarence’s wife Hannah), and everyone else on the outstanding, truly hilarious, cast. Will Forte (Saturday Night Live, Last Man on Earth) even manages to make the aforementioned culturally appropriating white drug dealer worth rehashing in his brilliant turn as Hulka.

At times Keanu is a victim of its format, a sketch without the luxury of ending when its premise has been stretched thin. But thanks to its performances, it never stretches so thin as to be boring. Ultimately, it is Key and Peele’s talent that makes Keanu so frustrating. Having seen how truly great the duo’s unique brand of comedy can be, it’s hard not to expect more. The film plays it safe, channeling their knack for character through run-of-the-mill archetypes, replacing satire with spoof, and adopting a by-the-book premise in lieu of actual social commentary. Keanu is pretty damn funny and certainly worth seeing, but if Key and Peele’s previous work is any indication, it should have been brilliant. FL

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