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Keanu' the cat's meow

May 4, 2016
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Key and Peele comedy an intelligent, absurd whirlwind

There's always a risk when an attempt is made to translate success from one medium to another. What works on the page might not work on TV; what works on TV might not work in the movies.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were lauded by audiences and critics alike for their work on their groundbreaking sketch show 'Key and Peele.' Their willingness to address any and all subject matter with intelligence and biting humor made the project a success. But could they bring that same smart irreverence to the big screen?

In a word yes. The duo's first feature project is 'Keanu,' directed by Peter Atencio from a script by Peele and Alex Rubens. It is absurd, unpredictable and wildly funny.

And there's a really cute cat.

Rell (Peele) is having a bit of a tough time. His girlfriend just left him and he can't get over it, choosing instead to wallow in his misery. His cousin Clarence (Key) is a motivational speaker and family man who just wants to help Rell get through this difficult period.

But it's only when a cute kitten shows up on his doorstep out of the blue that Rell finds a reason to keep going. He instantly falls in love with his new pet (to a fairly unhealthy degree), names him Keanu and snaps out of his funk.

However, it turns out that Keanu is a cat with a past. He is the former pet of a drug dealer who managed to escape a massacre executed by the shadowy and ultraviolent Allentown Brothers (also Key and Peele). That escape is what led him to Rell's door.

Unfortunately, that past means that there are numerous unsavory types that want Keanu for reasons of their own. This leads to a break-in at Rell's house one that ends with Keanu being taken.

Cued in by Rell's neighbor/drug dealer Hulka (Will Forte, TV's 'Last Man on Earth'), Rell and Clarence head out to track down the offending party, a gang named the 17th Street Blips and led by a hard case named Cheddar (rapper Method Man). After some misunderstandings and a few rather large lies, Cheddar who has Keanu comes to believe that Rell and Clarence are in fact those same Allentown Brothers and recruits them to help his main lieutenant Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish, 'All Between Us') sell a new drug (whose name we can't say here).

From there, wellhijinks definitely ensue.

The pair wind up diving deep into this unseemly criminal world and gradually begin to win over the initially suspicious Blips. Rell still driven by his need to recover Keanu starts getting closer to Hi-C. Meanwhile, Clarence finds himself confronted with some issues on the home front that push him in unexpected directions. In over their heads, Rell and Clarence have to find a way to get themselves out along with Keanu before it's too late.

'Keanu' is tremendously funny and wonderfully smart. It is packed with absurdity and weird asides and finely-crafted moments. It delights in the deconstruction and exploitation of genre tropes, whether they're taking aim at buddy comedies, over-the-top action fare or gangster movies. It is smart and warm and surprisingly biting, with some contagious energy.

There's no doubt that much of that comes from the pairing at the film's center. Key and Peele are a rare combination they're smart, they're funny and they are ALWAYS on the same page. That combination of cleverness and chemistry was a large part of what made their show so successful; this film does a fine job in capturing much of that essence.

The spirit of the duo is very much front and center the film is freewheeling in the best of ways, careening from beat to beat in a flash. That pacing does a good job in helping mask the film's flaws in some ways, 'Keanu' feels like an overlong sketch; there are a few fairly thin spots over the course of the film. However, there's no denying that the hits far outweigh the misses here there are some moments and sequences that are flat-out hilarious.

Peele and Rubens (who also wrote for 'Key and Peele') clearly steered the script toward the duo's strengths, while Atencio was a long-time director for the show. That likely contributes to the overlong-sketch vibe that the movie sometimes sports, but also to the thorough exploration and understanding of each man's talents.

'Keanu' is very much powered by its stars, but the supporting performances feature some solid turns as well. Haddish is good as the thuggish Hi-C, hiding warmth under a harsh and dismissive surface. Method Man is fine as Cheddar; I mean, I never really thought of him as Method Man, so that's actually a big step forward from him. Forte is his usual weirdly engaging self as drug dealer Hulka. And Keanu (who does have one speaking scene) is voiced by exactly who you think.

In the end, 'Keanu' is an imperfect movie. But thanks to a wicked sense of humor and a pair of deeply talented leading men, those imperfections don't matter much. It is ridiculous and sublime, an intelligent, absurd and hugely funny offering; clearly, Key and Peele can work in whatever medium they choose.

[4.5 out of 5]

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