The film, about two guys who fall into the Los Angeles criminal underworld when gangsters steal a kitten owned by one of them, has a lot going for it. Key and Peele are terrific comedic presences, with effortless chemistry that seems destined to fuel dozens of buddy comedies.
Director Peter Atencio — who also directed the entirety of the duo's Comedy Central series, Key and Peele — is one of the best comedy directors out there when it comes to stylish visuals. He perfectly apes action movies and even features a spot-on homage to a famous music video (whose identity I won't spoil).
And then there's Keanu the kitten (or, rather, kittens, since several were used in the filming of the movie), who is seriously the cutest cat on the face of the planet. (Yes, the movie nods to the other, more famous Keanu.) You really do believe this tiny feline is the Helen of Troy of the cat world. Gang wars break out over him, and it is totally plausible. (At my screening, half the fun was in listening to an audience of full-grown adults melt in the presence of such adorableness.)
But, funny as it is, there's something that holds Keanu back from greatness, and it's something that hurts many big studio comedies made today: the movie's script is merely a collection of loosely connected sketches, and that means it evaporates from memory almost as soon as it's over.
Sketch comedy is taking over the movies
To be fair to Keanu and other comedies like it, some of the funniest movies ever made are basically what I've described above: series of sketches that all feature the same characters, with only a nominal attempt to link them together with a larger story.
That roughly describes some classic films, including everything from Blazing Saddles to less obvious examples like Bringing Up Baby. But it also describes lots and lots of bad ones (like the recent The Boss). The key is that the characters go from goofy situation to goofy situation, with minimal overlap.
And it makes sense that two sketch comedians would follow this format in their big-screen breakout. Yes, Key and Peele are playing characters, but they're mostly just playing Key and Peele, your friends from television. And that's fine!
Key plays Clarence, an uptight family man who just needs to cut loose while his wife is away for the weekend. Peele plays his friend Rell, heartbroken after a breakup and intent on caring for the little kitten he views as a godsend in his time of sorrow. There's some extra business about how Rell has creative aspirations — apparently involving photography — but it's mostly sidestepped to make room for more jokes.
When Keanu vanishes, Clarence and Rell trace his disappearance (with the help of a local pot dealer played by Will Forte) to the drug-dealing gang The 17th Street Blips (the apparent result of a merger of Bloods and Crips). When the two are briefly mistaken for a pair of terrifying killers (who are also played by Key and Peele), they decide to run with it in hopes of getting Keanu back. Comedic chaos ensues.
The gags come fast and furious, but many characters who aren't Rell or Clarence seem to completely switch motivations, or their level of suspicion regarding Rell and Clarence's criminal acumen, depending on what the corresponding scene requires. Indeed, the movie is so episodic that you could basically post any given five-minute chunk of it on YouTube and present it as a largely coherent mini-movie.
Some of those would-be mini-movies are more successful than others — like one featuring Anna Faris as a drug-buying would-be samurai, which works beautifully, or a sequence in which Clarence tries to bluff some gangsters about his appendectomy scar, which falls flat when it suggests said gangsters have apparently never even heard of an appendix. But the episodic structure of the film both boosts and limits it.
Characters in sketch-style movies are often very thin
Because it is so episodic, Keanu is able to shake off its less funny passages, so they don't hang over the rest of the film. That's something a more traditionally structured comedy can't do as easily. Because the characters in Keanu adapt to fit whatever the script requires of them, it's easier for the movie to overcome a series of dud jokes.
But the result is that it's difficult to feel very invested in Clarence and Rell's personal journeys or stabs at romance, because the movie is constantly reshuffling its character deck in order to move on to the next big funny moment.
The fact that most of those funny moments are indeed very funny is what makes Keanu worth seeing; the lack of depth beyond them is why it will, like so many modern comedies, be remembered as little more than a series of lines to quote or jokes to imitate.
There's nothing inherently wrong with that. The junior high students of the world require movie comedy bits to re-enact with their friends over lunch, after all, and there are many worse comedians to try to emulate than the effortlessly funny and charismatic Key and Peele. (Whether said junior high students will as neatly embrace the film's satirical treatment of the N-word remains an open question for seventh-grade homeroom teachers to deal with.)
But since the rise of Saturday Night Live in the late '70s and particularly in this recent sketch-comedy renaissance, more and more film comedies are taking an easier route and not even trying to tell full stories about their characters; instead, they create a bunch of sketches that place those characters in hopefully funny situations.
It's possible to make a good movie this way. It's even possible to make a hilarious one. But I'm not sure it's possible to make a great one. Keanu just wants to give you a fun night at the movies, and it succeeds at that admirable task.
But Key and Peele aimed so much higher — with brutally effective satire — on their TV show that it's not hard to want to see them rewrite the rules of film comedy, too. Maybe next time.
Keanu is playing throughout the country.
Correction: This review originally identified Peele's character as "Ralph." His name is actually "Rell."