Tuesday, May 3, 2016

New Jack Kitty: Key & Peele’s Keanu

Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, and Keanu (right) in Keanu. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Films based on sketch comedy groups – from Monty Python & The Holy Grail to Wayne’s World – often use an episodic style where the story is really just a placeholder that allows gags to happen. Although this is appropriate considering the rapid-fire sketch DNA they share, and makes for the kind of light, low-risk entertainment that is often satisfying enough on its own, deep down it has always disappointed me. I like stories, especially funny ones. I like my funny stories to be well-told, and to have characters that grow and change and teach me things, just like characters in a drama or an adventure movie would. I would count Monty Python & The Holy Grail among my favourite comedies of all time, but even as the Pythons deliberately eviscerated the typical formula (including a narrator, for example, but having him hacked to death by a knight on horseback, and interrupting the climactic battle scene with modern-day bobbies who take our heroes into custody), I craved a real resolution to Arthur’s quest. Surrealist British genre subversion aside, I don’t ever see any real reason that comedies can’t be as smart and as interesting as any other kind of movie.

That’s why Keanu, written and produced by sketch comedy duo Key and Peele (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in a long, long time: it manages to tell a compelling story with actual characters that is also gut-bustingly hilarious.

Keanu is about a Los Angeles gang war and two hapless schlubs who become entwined in it because of an adorable kitten. Rell (Peele), a shiftless pothead, is dumped by his girlfriend and finds solace in a fist-clenchingly cute baby cat that shows up on his doorstep. He names it Keanu, unaware that its real name is “Iglesias” and that its former owner was a Mexican drug kingpin, killed in a contract hit. Rell’s best friend Clarence (Key), a neurotic gee-whiz family man, joins him for a night out, but when they return Rell finds his apartment ransacked and Keanu stolen. They deduce that a gang called the “Blips” (a profane union of the Bloods and the Crips, natch), mistaking Rell’s place for his weed-dealing next-door neighbour’s, must have taken Keanu, and in a white-hot rage Rell insists that Clarence help him infiltrate the gang and get the kitten back. Their attempts to blend in with Cheddar (Method Man) and his gang drive them deep into unknown and dangerous territory, where they start to discover things – and people – they actually like in this lifestyle that’s utterly alien to them.

The inclusion of the Allentown Brothers, a pair of gangland assassins in the Boondock Saints vein, is a genius touch: it's a way for Cheddar and his posse to accept Clarence and Rell for their quirkiness, since the legendary duo they decide to impersonate are shrouded in urban mystery; it's an extra level of danger added to the ticking clock, because even scarier foes than the gang are poised to discover their deception; and it's a way for Key and Peele to play multiple roles in the film (the brothers don't ever speak, which is perfect; they're not needed as characters so much as means to achieve these goals). The kitten isn’t named after that Keanu – at least, Rell doesn’t mention that part, he just says he thinks it means “cool breeze” in Hawaiian (which, to my astonishment, is actually correct) – but “Mister Anderson” himself does make a cameo role as the voice of the kitten in a memorable drug trip sequence, telling Clarence that in order to be excellent to anyone else, he first must be excellent to himself. I don’t think I need to elucidate the glee that sequence brought me, but just in case: with just a few lines, Keanu Reeves makes combined references to The Matrix, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and John Wick, which don’t just exist as empty pop culture parroting but actually reinforce Clarence’s character arc. It couldn’t be funnier, or more brilliant – and learning that Reeves only became involved with the film because he caught wind of it and wanted to offer his services is icing on the cake.

Method Man in Keanu.

The film operates on a similar structure to the mumblecore improv-based navel-gazing of Judd Apatow’s films, but finds ways to make its characters more interesting, and uses the craft of film to better effect. This breed of comedy (not just restricted to Apatow’s work), from Knocked Up to Bridesmaids to This Is The End, tend to rely on their cast to deliver improvised bits, eschewing scripted comedy for a relaxed, open-ended style. This is fine, except that it requires virtually no interesting camerawork or direction, and contains zero dramatic energy – it’s just a reel that cuts between actors standing around saying things, with the occasional sight gag or pratfall. Keanu is both smarter and more cinematic than that. Director Peter Atencio, who worked with Key and Peele on their Comedy Central sketch series, uses his actors and the well-polished script to create a film, with interesting cinematography (often framing Rell and Clarence to emphasize the isolation and anxiety they experience with the Blips), good lighting (which offers a unique view of L.A. and reinforces the short 48-hour span of the story), and a sense for blocking and movement that fills the frame with visual interest. His use of slow motion is great too, often because it’s mostly Keanu, and not the actors, who is shot like an action star, scrambling through people’s feet as bullets explode around him.

Keanu’s greatest strength, however, is its character work. The film is disdainful of gangbanger machismo and white-collar cowardice alike, finding ways to poke holes in every kind of persona that people construct around their identities. Once he crosses the threshold into the world of the Blips, Clarence throws himself utterly into the role, naming himself “Shark Tank,” and finding to his surprise that he kind of enjoys playing tough; while Rell (a.k.a. “Tectonic”), who is ostensibly leading the charge into this unknown and dangerous territory, becomes more and more horrified by it – until Keanu is placed in harm's way, that is, and he discovers an untapped well of inner strength. The film doesn't comment very much on race relations (the only prominent white character being Will Forte's weed dealer Hulka, who longs to be included in black culture, begging for the gang to spare him because he "knows everything about hip hop"), but that's because it's much more interested in exploring the idea of masculinity in a modern black world. Rell is a dork: his apartment is adorned with movie posters and he photographs Keanu against homemade dioramas that recreate famous scenes from cinema, and as a nerdy stoner, he’s utterly unprepared to enter Blip territory (even if he has a slightly better idea of what to expect than the George Michael-loving Clarence). Clarence is even more so, as a self-emasculating husband whose idea of letting loose is watching a Liam Neeson movie, and who is in denial about an adulterer (Rob Huebel) making moves on his wife. The pathetic foppishness of these two characters is contrasted with the absurd swagger and posturing of the Blips, like Jason Mitchell’s Bud, who claims he was stabbed by both his mother and his grandmother. A scene in which the gangbangers wait with Clarence in his minivan while Rell completes a drug deal is the nexus of these two clashing worlds: the Blips come to appreciate white culture in the soothing tones of George Michael, and Clarence, even through his deception, helps this band of misfits achieve better communication skills. Keanu is chock full with meaningful subtext that you’re likely to miss just because you’re too busy doubling over with laughter.

I can't comment effectively on the film's use of "the n-word," except to say that it's handled in an interesting way. By having the uptight Clarence, on their first visit to Cheddar's strip club ("Hot Party Vixens," or "HPV" for short), express every objection possible to Rell's insistence that they use the word to blend in, the film anticipates and dismisses the audience's reaction to it. It would be problematic if they simply used the word as part of their fake gangsta personas, and felt disgusted by it afterward – but they come to enjoy using it, just as they revel in the aspects of quote-unquote "thug life" that make them feel powerful and manly. That's a much more intelligent commentary on the way the word is used in society, by anyone, than most films usually bother including. Look at the white people like Hulka who use it as a plea to be included in a culture that doesn't apply to them – isn't that just what Clarence and Rell are doing, even as black men?

I haven’t commented on Key and Peele’s self-titled sketch series because it hardly feels necessary; they’ve cemented themselves as among the sharpest and funniest performers on television, and now, with Keanu, on the big screen too. Peele’s talent for intelligent and well-structured comedy writing and Key’s legitimate acting ability have been part of what set their show apart, so it’s satisfying to see them fully realize that potential in a feature format. I haven’t been at a comedy screening in ages where the audience laughed as hard and that gave me so much to chew over afterward as Keanu. If the prospect of “a black John Wick except it’s a comedy” isn’t enough, consider seeing it simply because there's probably never been a more adorable kitten captured on film.

Seriously, even as a dog person, it’s ridiculous how cute this cat is.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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