Directed by Peter Atencio
Opens April 29
In one of the first scenes of Keanu, we see Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) driving the streets of Los Angeles on his way to cheer up his friend Rell (Jordan Peele), who’s just been dumped. Clarence is straight-laced, wears khakis and collared shirts, and is in the middle of jamming out to George Michael. He’s kind of paying attention to the road, but he’s mostly consumed by lip syncing and seat-dancing to the 80s rock star who (in my opinion) made bad pop songs like “Faith,” “Father Figure,” and “Freedom.”
When he gets to Rell’s home, Clarence expects to find the picture of heartbreak. Instead, Rell greets Clarence holding a tiny kitten, who has wandered up to his home. With this cute fluff ball in hand, Rell has found joy and purpose in his life once more.
“Oh my god,” Clarence exclaims, “that’s the cutest cat I’ve ever seen in my life!” Rell says he’s named the cat Keanu. “I think it means ‘cool breeze in Hawaiian,'” he says, with a joy-filled grin that stretches ear to ear.
Both George Michael and Keanu are integral to the movie’s plot; but for my purposes, they’re especially important for what they say about the genius of the actors and comedians Key and Peele. These men are so gifted at what they do—which we already knew because of their riotous self-titled show, Key & Peele, and sketches like Obama’s Angry Translator and Meegan, Come back—that they transformed two things I don’t like that much (George Michael and cats) into things that, through their lens, I found delightful. As the men bring out the absurdities and inherent lovability of both in Keanu, I laughed from my gut the whole way through.
That same comedic gift also took a pretty bizarre plot—which is part thriller, part comedy, party love story, part straight-up scary sometimes, involving a lot of drug and gang violence, and kitten love—and turned it into an enigmatic yet totally cohesive tale with a strong moral message. Three quarters into the movie, that message is delivered by the cat Keanu (actually voiced by Keanu Reeves). It’s at a point when Clarence is at his lowest low (and, incidentally, in the middle of a drug trip, in which he finds himself inside of George Michael’s original music video for “Faith”); Keanu appears and, in the voice of Keanu Reeves, tells Clarence that he is his spirit teacher, and conveys this message: “People can’t be excellent to you, unless you be excellent to yourself.”
This, in short, is what Key and Peele go on to demonstrate, while being inventive and hilarious, together, throughout the course of the film. Clarence (Key), who has a tendency to be submissive and do whatever anyone else wants, struggles to stand up for himself; this feeling is exacerbated because his wife tells him, essentially, that she would love him more if he would be independently stronger. So when she goes away for the weekend with their daughter, one of her daughter’s friends, and the friend’s dad, Clarence tasks himself to do something just for himself, in her absence.
And this is the juncture at which Clarence finds Rell (Peele) at his door, elated by Keanu. But of course, conflict soon arises. Rell’s house gets ransacked by a local gang (led by Method Man, called “Cheddar,” in a great cameo), and abducts Keanu. The two men decide that the only course of action is to hunt the gang down and get Keanu back: That way, Clarence will have acted bravely and asserted himself, and Peele will win back his purpose in life, Keanu.
As one might imagine, things get complicated. When they find Cheddar at a strip club—which holds a massive drug operation that churns out a mysterious drug called “Holy Shit”—they scramble to turn into two people they are deeply not: The Allentown Brothers, legendary for their merciless killing. And this act lays incredible groundwork for Key and Peele to sink into fantastically comic repartee, as they transform themselves in voice and character into dangerous killers.
When another gang member Hi-C escorts them to see Cheddar—who is terrifying yet holding a purring Keanu—Clarence, thinking on his feet, says, “We in the market right now for, like, a gangster pet.” As he speaks, his voice is now that of Shark Tank, his killer alter ego, and it is spot on. At another point, after Rell (now “Techtonic”) has helped complete a drug deal, in which two people were killed, he tries to convince Hi-C that he had nothing to do with those killings; that he was not, in fact, an accomplice to murder. Still, Hi-C keeps thanking him, saying she could never have done it without him.
“Nah, I did not help you kill them,” he prods, trying to stay in character, playing it off like he’s being magnanimous, but actually terrified he’s broken the law. But Hi-C persists; no, it was only with his help that she could have taken them out. Rell keeps pushing back gently, being like, “Nah, I really didn’t help you kill them, you did it all on your own…” It is an ingenious scene you have never seen anything like before, and incredibly funny.
Ultimately—after a lot more bloodshed—Clarence and Rell both get what they were after. Rell gets Keanu back, and Clarence has been bold and brave, so his wife comes home to find him completely irresistible. On the other hand, Clarence and Rell have actually broken a lot of laws while they were at it, so they have to serve short jail sentences.
Yet, in the bizarre, comic, ingenious universe of Key and Peele, even jail is transformed, miraculously, into a happy ending. These men’s talents seem to know no bounds; they have the power to transform whatever we might deem inherently bad, weird, or annoying—cats, George Michael, jail, anything—and re-reveal it as a thing to learn from, or a thing of beauty, capable of spreading joy. With Keanu, Key and Peele remind us that the world, in all of its strangeness and harshness, is a wondrous place; or, at least, they will make you feel it is for the duration of the film.