Keanu (Atencio, 2016)

I laughed out loud a couple of times during Keanu (★★½), the feature film starring comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a pair of normal guys trying to pass themselves off as gangstas. And good comedies that aren’t totally filthy are hard to come by. So that’s a mild endorsement, I guess.

But…

I also spent most of the film’s stretched ninety-eight minutes hoping against hope that it would somehow “take off” — find another comedic gear beyond the leisurely ironic or another tone besides that of the nervous huckster. The plot reaches the madcap stage, but neither the performers nor the characters ever struck me as truly desperate, even when our seemingly normal guys believe they have just killed other people.

Should they have to be? Well, watching Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor or others of the great comedians of the last generation, one was infused with their nervous energy (rather than just witnessing it) based not just on what they had said but in anticipation of what they might. Key and Peele might stop to debate the appropriateness of using the “N” word, but the discussion is more about diffusing anxiety rather than exploiting it. Yes, it seems to say, we are aware of the cultural arguments for and against and…blah, blah, blah. Comedy doesn’t have to be transgressive, but it shouldn’t be this self-conscious.

The Keanu 1stars also play a pair of sadistic and silent assassins who take out a drug factory in the opening, freeing the titular feline who then finds its way to Rell’s (Jordan Peele) doorstep. He’s just broken up with his girlfriend, so the instant attachment to the feline orphan is both sweet and funny, though like many of the jokes in Keanu, it doesn’t extend much beyond the pitch. After a guy’s night out, the pair return to find Rell’s apartment ransacked and Keanu missing. A tip from a neighbor, who is also Rell’s weed dealer, sends them to a local bar to find the animal, now adorned in a dew rag and the mascot of a drug dealer named Cheddar (Method Man).

From there it’s all situation comedy (and the cat plays less a role than you might think from the trailer). Nerdy guys act tough. Tough drug dealers come to appreciate the music of George Michael. Cheddar ransoms the gangster pet in exchange for the duo’s participation in a drug deal. Most of the jokes draw at least a smile. Few draw more than that. Few even really try.

Ultimately, Keanu writes its own pull quote: who doesn’t like little kittens? If I argue that this would be substantively the same movie with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg or Melissa McCarthy and Tina Fey–that the majority of the humor is in the set-up rather than the execution–does that mean actors shouldn’t get some credit? Not at all. Good comedians have a nose for good material. Great ones, though, can elevate that material.

It remains to be seen in which category Key and Peel should be placed.

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