May 6 2016 12:24 PM

'Keanu' funny but lacks depth

The worst thing I can say about “Keanu” is that it’s a bit over-familiar. And the best thing I can say is that it doesn’t feel over-familiar, thanks to the talent of its two leads, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and a creative team mostly taken from their brilliant sketch show, “Key & Peele.

Written by Peele and Alex Rubens, also a writer for “Key & Peele” and directed by Peter Atencio, the sketch series’ house director, the movie has the same look and feel of the show. It also has the same sense of humor. “Keanu” plays like a feature length expansion of one of the show’s sketch ideas.

Rell (Peele), who is depressed after being dumped by his girlfriend, finds new purpose after the most adorable kitten on the face of the earth, the titular Keanu, finds his way to Rell’s doorstep. A few weeks later, Rell and his cousin, Clarence (Key), find Rell’s apartment has been broken into by drug dealers and Keanu is missing. From here, the two get mixed up in the criminal underworld while trying to find and rescue him.

The plot is admittedly quite silly, but Rubens and Peele manage to sell it by embracing its absurdity. Most comedies that would try to make the story feel more “grounded,” whatever that means. In some ways, this isn’t a movie that should work. Even now, I find myself wanting to criticize the film for its looseness and outlandish plot, wondering if Key and Peele should have waited for an idea with more heft to base their feature film debut on. But then I remember how much I enjoyed the film, and all those concerns melt away.

This film will inevitably be compared to “Key & Peele,” and I think the film benefits from it. The same sense of humor is present in the film, but the fast paced nature of a mainstream film narrative means most of these bits don’t get the same kind of development that they would on television. This is sad, because Key and Peele’s strength as comedians lies in their cultural commentary, subtly examining issues that other sketch comedies would be afraid to tackle.

Themes of black masculinity, code switching, feminism and more are brought up in the film, but that’s about it. They’re brought up and not really given further consideration. Here, the issues are mined for humor, but there’s no depth behind their inclusion. I grew increasingly concerned that the movie world had sanitized Key and Peele’s sensibilities as comedians and artists — and my fears were somewhat validated by the film’s “Hollywood ending.”

Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that it’s a 90-minute film and not a five-minute sketch. In a sketch, an idea can get in, make its point and get out without overstaying its welcome or having some tacked on resolution to retroactively justify it. Key and Peele were masters of knowing exactly how long a specific sketch should last. They give ideas room to develop but cut things off before they get stale. This is sorely missed in the film.

And this is why prior exposure to “Key & Peele” only aids the enjoyment of “Keanu.” Knowing where these jokes come from and the larger context they point to makes the film feel richer, but this also holds it back when you think of the film as a standalone work. It occupies a strange limbo status where it feels like a fun, enjoyable completion to the show, but also a mildly disappointing rehash of much the same material, modified for a movie and subsequently losing what made it so special.

That’s not to say the film isn’t funny. It is, deliriously so. It reaffirms its two stars as some of the best comic performers working today. It’s also nice to see them playing characters that more closely resemble human beings, as opposed to the outrageous caricatures they’re more accustomed to. The rest of the supporting cast is quite suitable, but they feel like background most of the time, lost amidst the whirlwind comic magnetism of Key and Peele — save for a few cameos I won’t spoil.

Atencio’s direction is likewise suitable. He knows exactly how to work with Key and Peele and plays to their strengths as performers. Unfortunately, he also seems a bit uninspired. Atencio’s direction on the series was consistently great and at times absolutely masterful. He knew how to create a style for each sketch, especially when dealing with genre parody. He understood how to distill the essence of a sketches’ concept into his direction, amplifying the comedy of each scene. But without a unifying idea to focus his direction, he directs the film as if it were any other modern American comedy film. There’s no visual panache or clever cinematic techniques unless explicitly needed for action or dream sequences. When these sequences do come along, he nails it, but there is ample room elsewhere in the film for Atencio to flex his creative muscles. Unfortunately, he leaves these opportunities on the table.

But don’t get me wrong; “Keanu” is an entertaining, extremely funny film. I was laughing throughout, and it gets better as it goes. Despite its shortcomings, it’s a film I very much enjoyed and most audiences will, too. And fans of “Key & Peele” will undoubtedly enjoy this.

If you’ve heard of the duo and are wondering what all the hubbub is about, now’s a perfect time to discover their greatness. “Keanu” is a great — albeit shallow — distillation/introduction to what has made the two notable over the past few years. But let’s hope there’s more to come and that they continue to improve on their impressive and subversive work.