There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Keanu, the first movie from sketch Comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele since the end of their sketch comedy show, Key & Peele. While the show was often hilarious, making the jump from TV sketch comedy to the feature-length comedies has always been a difficult needle to thread. For every group or idea where it works out (see: Monty Python’s films) the past is littered with sketch-to-feature failures (see: every SNL-inspired movie besides Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World.)
Keanu overcomes the odds, though. It’s a tight, funny movie that will hopefully be the first in a long string of hilarious films from the comedy duo. That begs the question, how did these two succeed where so many others failed? Rather than relying on a brand, recontextualizing old ideas for a medium they weren’t written for, Key and Peele allow their chemistry and comedic style to serve as the link between the movie and their old work.
The plot is both a traditional comedy plot, but also feels especially well-suited for a 2016 audience. Rell (Peele) and his cousin Clarence (Key) try to infiltrate a gang in order to save Rell’s Kitten, Keanu, who was stolen after his house was robbed. Clarence and Rell are not tough by any stretch of the imagination, and are repeatedly pushed out of their comfort zone to prove they’re who they say they are. Hilarity ensues.
Keanu shares a lot of DNA with Key & Peele (the sketch show), but doesn’t rely on in-jokes or references. (Actually, there are a fair number of references, but they point to other movies, not their show. You can’t make a movie called “Keanu” without a couple of Matrix jokes, right?) Like the show, much of the film revolves around Key and/or Peele behaving ridiculously. That ridiculousness often involves a feeble attempt at behaving like something they’re not. One long sequence involves Clarence, sitting in car full of hardened gang members, trying to convince them that George Michael is a cool musician that represents their lifestyle. It sounds like something that could be a Key & Peele sketch, but it doesn’t match one-to-one with anything they’ve done before.
That isn’t to say that fans of Key & Peele won’t recognize anything in the film. Many of the running themes throughout Key & Peele, subverting social expectations about masculinity and racial identity, are well represented here. This is a movie about men fighting each other over a kitten, after all. The irrational arguments are frequent. The duo even dress up a couple of times.
As one would hope, the movie also transposes certain types of jokes they relied on in their sketch work, using the additional time and resources to tell their jokes in new ways. Case in point, their movie references, which range from the aforementioned Keanu-Matrix jokes to some subtly placed John Woo-style doves, were also pretty standard on Key & Peele, which featured whole sketches based on TV and movie series, including a sketch set during an episode of Hell’s Kitchen and another about two nerdy valets recapping Game of Thrones. Where most sketch writers moving to the big screen would take their short sketch ideas and make them longer, Key and Peele generally scale their reference-based humor down to single jokes and throwaway gags.
The ability to translate a lot of these ideas in a natural, but original, way stems from the fact Key and Peele are a duo. Most Key & Peele sketches, regardless of the characters or the themes, are made by the rapport between the two stars. That rapport doesn’t go away just because the story runs longer. Movies revolving around whole sketch troupes inevitably have to split time between many players and combinations of characters, and thus dilute the magic of their best teams by ensuring that everybody gets some screen time. In the same vein, movies based on sketches generally feel compelled to expand their characters’ background, leading to new and often less humorous ground.
That doesn’t mean that everything is 100 percent fresh, here, though. Every now and then, there’s a joke that comes so close to past sketches that one might smell a whiff of recycled humor. Key and Peele won’t be truly over their TV phase until they make a film without a scene where they make up any ridiculous names. I love the “College Bowl” sketches as much as anybody, but I’m also glad they didn’t make a movie about them. We don’t need to know why Hingle McCringleberry got into playing football. He’s literally just a name on a jersey.
While Key and Peele have done a great job with Keanu — as did with director Peter Artencio and co-writer Alex Rubens — it certainly doesn’t hurt that there is real of dearth of original comedies coming to theaters these days. At a time when both film and TV are inundated with reboots and/or sprawling dramas, most everything about Keanu feels fresh, even when it feels familiar.