What happens when two middle-class guys go on a drug-fueled murder spree? Well, you get ‘Keanu,’ the latest pop culture contribution by comedy duo Key and Peele (KP) about one man’s love for his cat. ‘Keanu,’ written by Jordan Peele and former KP writer, Alex Rubens, is smart. While it isn’t as funny as expected, it returns to the heart of improv comedy. You don’t have to make the audience laugh all the time, but you SHOULD make them care about your character. Like ‘The Neighbors” (2014) multi-layered fratboy portrayal, it avoids blatant stereotypes of the gangster characters our heroes interact with while leaving each character room for growth.
‘Keanu’ follows the uptight family man, Clarence Goobril (Keegan-Michael Key), and his cousin, depressed graphic designer, Rell Williams (Jordan Peele). When a small time gang mistakenly steals Rell’s cat, the two decide to steal it back. Of course, character development and occasional hilarity ensue.
After watching five seasons of non-stop kick-ass ‘Key Peele’ episodes (not to mention their numerous comedic cameos on the small screen) my stratospheric expectations for the duo slowly downgraded as the film progressed. I had a couple good laughs but not back to back laughter as I expected. But, then again, ‘Keanu’ wasn’t just an action parody and doubled as a character study. Numerous improvisational instructors emphasized to me that long-form improv doesn’t require non-stop humour. Instead, it requires the audience care about the characters while the actors give their characters a place to grow. Although stoner Rell and prepster Clarence started out surface, as the film progressed, I increasingly cared about the characters and the danger they exposed themselves to. Everytime Rell or Clarence made a deliberately bad decision, I feared for them and wondered how each act might impact their future lives.
In allowing the pathos to conquer the funny, ‘Keanu’ survives the failings of similar films. Instead of stretching their non-stop short-form sketch comedy humour into a two-hour plot, the duo avoids the esoteric audience disconnect of ‘Kids in the Hall’s critically panned ‘Brain Candy’ (1997) and the superficiality of most ‘Saturday Night Live’ films. Although the film instantiated with the same comedic fish-out-of-water movie tropes a la ‘Hangover,’ ‘Date Night,’ ‘Half-Baked,’ ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ and ‘Walk of Shame,’ surrounding the basic stereotypes of pot usage, loser friends, and uptight businessmen, it did not remain on that plane. Although the film eventually hit insane levels of absurdity, it occurred through character evolution where each character’s choice (good or bad) drove the film while cementing a covert theme of ‘authenticity’ and granting another textured layer.
Visually, I tip my hat to Peter Atencio for adjusting to the big screen so nicely. Similar to ‘Bad Boys,’ ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘Spy,’ he shows an understanding of using the action film paradigm while wrapping it with an underlying sense of irony.
So, while this wasn’t the ‘Key Peele’ film I expected, it proved a textbook example of improv at its finest. Was it as funny as I wanted? No. Like the cat, it was cute and warm-hearted. Sometimes that’s all you can ask. If you’re interested in seeing pure examples of long-form improv, check out ‘Keanu,’ especially for its cameos including Ana Faris, Will Forte, Nia Long, Method Man and Luis Guzman.