Keegan-Michael Key at the SXSW “work-in-progress” screening of “Keanu.” Jason Bailey / Flavorwire
Which is sort of what was happening. The SXSW “work-in-progress” screening for big studio comedies is a tradition that dates back to Knocked Up, an easy way to test laughs for a receptive audience while simultaneously giving a movie that plays well a big buzz boost. And Keanu is a bit of a risk. Key & Peele’s audience is fervent, but not necessarily giant; even the buzziest of the Comedy Central shows don’t generate what looks, in the scope of the entertainment industry, like big numbers. And Key & Peele are an example of what’s become an endangered species in big-screen laughers: an honest-to-goodness comedy team.
Movies used to be filled with them, from Laurel & Hardy to the Marx Brothers to the Three Stooges to Abbott & Costello to Martin & Lewis. But they started thinning out around the 1960s; the last example of a really giant traditional comedy team was Cheech & Chong. There have been other memorable pairings in the years since (Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler), but those are occasional teams, collaborating from time to time while maintaining their own careers and fronting their own vehicles.
Key & Peele aren’t like that. We’ve always known them as a team, whether on MAD TV, their eponymous sketch series, or the first season of Fargo, and while solo projects are starting to pop up (Key co-stars in Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, which will premiere here tonight), we still think of each of them, primarily, as standing next to the other. Part of that is on account of how well they play off each other; part of that can be attributed to how groundbreaking and thought-provoking the series that bore their name was.
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele at the SXSW “work-in-progress” screening of “Keanu.” Jason Bailey / Flavorwire
Their Keanu director, Peter Atencio, helmed much of that series as well, and in many ways, Keanu plays like an expansion of that show’s themes and ideas (and a few of its gags; yes, there’s a brief, throwaway reference to “Liam Neesons”). The storyline, which finds our heroes bluffing their way into a dangerous drug ring in order to retrieve Peele’s adorable feline, mostly serves as a vehicle for comic exploration of one of their favorite topics: code switching. Forgive me, for their character names are not yet listed on IMDb, but who’re we kidding, they’re playing Key and Peele (much as Abbott & Costello were always playing Abbott & Costello, even though the names changed): mixed race guys, hailing from the mean streets of New York and Detroit, yet settled into a comfortable Buppie lifestyle.
When they find themselves at the strip club (called, of course, HPV), they can’t be themselves. They have to pull their jeans low, zip up their hoodies, strut in with authority, and adjust their speaking voices; “You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy,” Peele tells Key, who retorts, “You sound like John Ritter, all the time.” The low-frequency growls and profanity-and attitude-laden poses they adopt (Key’s comically exaggerated “WHAT’S UP MUTHAFUCKAS” are a highlight) speak to the kind of archaic notions of masculinity that aren’t exclusive to the black community – but the screenplay (by Peele and Alex Reubens, a writer for their show and Community) also suggests the ways in which those notions can be punctured. Tasked with teaching their killing skills to a crew of drug runners, Key looks upon the endeavor as a corporate team-building exercise, and they get considerable comic mileage out of applying his white-collar techniques to this incongruous setting. Busted with a decidedly not “hard” selection of George Michael music on his phone, he lays out the toughness behind “Father Figure” and Wham’s breakup.
That George Michael runner is called back a couple of times too many, and there are other glitches as well; Atencio could lose ten or fifteen minutes in the back half, and that section tends to get too bogged down in tying up the dumb plot. But y’know who else’s movies did that? The Marx Brothers, and Abbott & Costello, and all the rest of ‘em. What matters is that Keanu is funny – very, very funny – and it proves that Key & Peele can sustain a comic premise (and their own charismatic personas) well over the duration of a five-minute sketch. Plus, y’know, the kitten is really cute. What else can you ask for?
Keanu is out April 29.