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by Jay Seaver

"Hit the sweet spot between spoofing buddy comedies and being one."
4 stars

A couple of days after watching "Keanu", I thought, hey, what if this isn't just a fairly amusing bunch of jokes, including callbacks to some of stars Keegan-Michael Key's and Jordan Peele's most famous sketch-comedy bits, but a sort of riff on what it's like to be a minority who doesn't exactly fit the most popular view of that means. I can't exactly speak to that, but I can say that I laughed quite a bit, even though I was only vaguely aware of Key & Peele before.

They respectively play Clarence Goobril and Rell Williams, the former an overly-giving family man and the latter a bit of a schlub who has just been dumped by his girlfriend. The good news is that an adorable kitten has just appeared outside his door; potentially less good news is that it escaped from a shootout at a drug dealer's hideout. And, indeed, when Rell's house is broken into a few weeks later, it turns out that the guy who wrecked the place and took Keanu is a gangster who goes by the name "Cheddar" (Clifford "Method Man" Smith). It seems the only way to get Keanu back is the pose as tough guys themselves, although Cheddar's lieutenant Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish) is justifiably skeptical.

Key & Peele have been working as a team for a while, so it's not surprising to see that they've got a solid dynamic hammered out - Key is the manic one, eager to please in a way that becomes somewhat off-putting, while Peele is more laid-back, although he's mastered the art of catching the audience off-balance by undercutting this with a surprising determination. Both director Peter Atencio and Peele's co-writer Alex Rubens worked on the Key & Peele television series, so it's not surprising that the group seems well-practiced, changing tempos between Key's fast delivery and Peele's more relaxed responses, and unlike a lot of buddy movies where the pair seems to get on each other's nerves enough to make one question how much they really enjoy each other's company, there's a genuine sense that these guys genuinely like each other.

On top of the pair's easy chemistry, Keanu also features a bunch of good jokes, and considering that a whole bunch of them are pop culture references in a movie named after a movie star, it's kind of surprising that they tend to land as well as they do: It's the sort of thing where a lazy movie could expect the audience to just laugh in recognition, but the characters' balance of nerdiness and charm is good, and that's on top of the way that, underneath, both Clarence and Rell are well aware how cool the movies make gangstas look even if that's not who they want to be in real life. All of that could be done with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but Atencio and company are excellent at making the jokes work as jokes, rather than be in love with their own irony.

They also manage to balance the over-the-top violence of the action scenes and the fact that Keanu is so cute as to be utterly irresistible (he is played by a set of extremely adorable kitties). There's also a fun supporting cast: Tiffany Haddish is unceremoniously very enjoyable as Cheddar's right hand, while the rest of her crew is turns in a lot of good deadpan work. There are a few folks who show up in big enough roles not to be called cameos but make for nice surprises (and not just name-drops) if you haven't seen their names on posters.

Despite being a fairly simple comedy, I suspect that "Keanu" might draw different reactions from different audiences - you either get certain references or you don't, and while I think it's kind of brilliant that the straitlaced characters' nervousness with calling each other "n---a" will reflect that of some in the audience, they might have a hard time laughing at that. Even in the worst-case-scenario of audience preparedness, the gags are still good and Peele & Key a great team doing good work in their first big movie.

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originally posted: 05/26/16 17:27:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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  29-Apr-2016 (R)
  DVD: 02-Aug-2016


  DVD: 02-Aug-2016

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