In something like Quentin Tarantino’s version of That Darn Cat, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele make a sublime comedy team in their new film, Keanu. The poster doesn’t lie: it’s centered around a little mewling kitten, a “gangsta pet” sought by horrible and dangerous men.
The two comedians play cousins. Key is Clarence, an anxious suburban family man in a madras shirt. At first glance, he’s like Dwayne Johnson’s frailer little brother. Upon further examination, he’s a beige Chevy Chase. The word protean describes Key; he’s facially bland enough that he can pose as hundreds of characters, as he has over the five seasons of the duo’s hit Comedy Central show, Key and Peele.
When Clarence’s wife and kids go away for the weekend, giving this exec a chance to stretch his legs, he’s called up by his cousin, Rell. Peele is the cuddly furry-brained type, honoring the tradition that a good comedy team is one person trying to keep order, paired with a partner whose grip has long since gone. Rell has just been dumped by his girlfriend, who told him he wasn’t going anywhere in life. “I don’t even know what that means!” he whines, through a mouthful of bong smoke.
Heaven sends Rell a stray silver tabby, scratching at his door. The cat completes him—they share milk from a saucer. It turns out Keanu the kitten is the lone survivor of a bloodbath. Two monstrous gangsters, the Allentown Brothers (also played by Key and Peele) shot and carved up a lair full of drug-dealing rivals in the best John Woo style. After burglars strike Rell’s house, the kitty vanishes. Clues lead to a gangsta named Cheddar (Method Man). To impress this downtown criminal and his cohorts, the cousins pose as the deadly Allentowners.
The deception is complicated by the way Clarence talks: as Rell says, “like Richard Pryor imitating a white guy.” Key doesn’t really have the voice of the nervous Caucasian whom Pryor frequently imitated on stage in his long-since-played-out “white guys be like this, black guys be like that” routine. That snippy, quacking white-guy voice of Pryor’s plagues me—I hate when I hear it coming out of my own mouth.
With help from Cheddar’s skeptical moll Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish, a standout) the two run a crew of drug dealers. Their first customer is a drugged out starlet: the one and only Anna Faris, playing herself. Raccoon-faced from too much mascara, waving a samurai sword and eager to play mind games, Faris is delightfully bizarre. It’s poignant to hear her recite her resume: “I was in Scary Movie 1, 2, 3 and 4. Not 5. Too old.”
K and P’s longtime collaborator, director Peter Atencio, wreaks this film out of a Los Angeles flavored with bits of New Orleans. A thug team-building session is staged in a graffiti-covered park, where someone has spray-painted the phrase “Hollywood Fuck Off.” If this was the comment of a neighborhood local disgusted by camera crews, Atencio is careful to leave in the shot. Keanu is just that generous.
Like the baby in Raising Arizona, Keanu the kitten stirs up everyone’s emotions without having any of its own. Wearing a bitty do-rag and tiny bling around its neck, the little mite is a symbol of fragile, finer feelings threatened by the heavy boots of the urban world. Another instance of tenderness: the prelude to a thwarted kiss on a rooftop between Rell and Hi-C, during a fireworks party. The explosions give the would-be gangbanga PTSD after the gunfights he’s been witnessing. And Haddish, like Faris, gives this endearing trifle everything she’s got.
But is it that trifling? The subject gives these two prime comedians something to sink their teeth into. Both biracial, Key once observed he and his partner are “code-shifters” with the color line. Keanu teases the idea of how the movie-fed characteristics of race are just one more role for actors. Similarly, race is just one more thing everyone believes in, even though there’s no science to prove it.
Keanu Directed by Peter Atencio. Starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. R; 98 min.