“That is the cutest kitten I’ve ever seen!” Keegan-Michael Key exclaims when his character sees Jordan Peele’s new kitten Keanu for the first time.
You’ll be likely to agree. The titular kitten (actually played by more than half a dozen individual feline scene-stealers) may in fact be the cutest kitten on the planet, but he doesn’t get anywhere near enough screen time. Messy, manic and frequently moronic, “Keanu” is a cute kitten comedy with far too little kitten.
Not to say there’s nothing funny in “Keanu,” there is, although by no means do the filmmakers bring that off consistently, but no one is likely to come out of the movie wishing it longer. At only an hour and thirty-eight minutes, “Keanu” already feels too long. There have been some recent comedies that clocked in at ninety minutes or less, and director Peter Atencio should have taken his cue from them. Cutting a painfully unfunny extended cameo by Anna Faris would have been a start.
Comedy Central stars Key and Peele play Clarence and Rell, other-than-streetwise cousins who infiltrate a street gang and impersonate ruthless killers when Rell’s beloved kitten, Keanu, is catnapped. While they desperately try to prove they’re badass to genuine gangbangers, Keanu proves so adorable that the fight over his custody sparks a gang war. The thing is, the cat is what Hitchcock would have called the Maguffin. Rell’s relentless quest to find his missing kitten is what sparks the action, and the kitten himself is seldom on screen. That’s sort of a pity. As funny as the human stars often are, the cat blows everyone away.
“Keanu” has a pervasive TV skit sensibility throughout, not surprising given its pedigree. Atencio (“Key and Peele,” “The Last Man on Earth”) directed from a script written by Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens (“Key and Peele,” “Community”). Key and Peele’s faux-gangbanger schtick is amusing, for about the first five minutes, but after that it might as well be drag humor. You either find the fact that a man is wearing a dress funny or you don’t. It’s not enough to sustain a feature length story, and “Keanu” is in frequent danger of being a one-joke movie. There are also some rough edges and half-baked plot detours. Instead of a satisfying resolution with Method Man’s Cheddar (a great villain name if there ever was one), drops veteran screen heavy Luis Guzmán in out of nowhere, in a part he could have, and might have, done in his sleep. A colorful supporting cast, including Method Man, Tiffany Haddish, Jason Mitchell, Jamar Malachi Neighbors and Darrell Britt-Gibson, as gangbangers who actually fall for this ruse, provide sufficient laughs along the way to keep the story breathing. Clarence selling George Michael to as cool to inner city gangbangers is worth the price of admission. Will Forte is unrecognizable as a corn-rowed drug dealer.
The movie is rated R, but suffers from a TV timidity throughout. There is bad language, but nothing you wouldn’t hear on an elementary school playground and the minimal nudity (primarily dancers glimpsed in the background in a strip club) is so fleeting you might actually miss it. The obligatory d**k shot is relegated to a necklace worn by one of the real baddies (played by Key and Peele, a detail which may be overlooked by viewers who don’t stay for the end credits), and the violence is far less graphic than a routine episode of “The Walking Dead.” A scene depicting a drug-fueled hallucination is less shocking – and less imaginative – than in “21 Jump Street” or any Harold & Kumar movie. Keanu Reeves provides the voice for Keanu in this sequence, but that doesn’t particularly matter, and “The Matrix” references are so general you’d be forgiven for wondering if the filmmakers had even seen it.
However many things “Keanu” gets wrong though, it gets a number of things right, and there is always the cat. Ironically though, Key and Peele’s leap to the big screen won’t lose a thing on Red Box.