Key and Peele movie 'Keanu' makes a funny but uneven SXSW debut

Whether it's introducing fantastically named college-football players, doing spot-on Obama impressions or making inspired mayhem across the TV dial, the comedy duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have been deservedly at the top of the sketch game for years, as socially provocative as they are goofy.

Hopes, then, run understandably high for their first feature film, an action-spoof called "Keanu" that made its "work-in-progress" debut at a late (like, end-at-3:30-a.m.-late) screening Saturday night at the SXSW Film Festival, an event at which the stars showed up and tossed stuffed animal giveaways into the crowd.

Key and Peele produced and star in the film, while the latter was also a writer.  "Keanu" is directed by Peter Atencio, another ingredient in their secret sauce; he has helmed every episode of their hit Comedy Central show. In other words, it's an all-in-the-family affair.

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The film focuses on underachieving stoner Rel (Peele) and his best friend/cousin Clarence (Key), a suburban square whose very presence riffs on racial preconceptions. (Warner Bros.' New Line made "Keanu" and will release it in theaters April 29.)

The title is a reference to, yes, that Keanu, only this time he's a cat that saves Rel by showing up at his door after the stoner underwent a bad breakup--but whose disappearance sends him and Clarence on a crime-riddled spin through some of L.A.'s gang underworld. It's that kind of movie.

The film is at its best when the pair, often in impossible situations, are given a chance to do their up-close loose sketch work. That means one-liners -- "We in the market for a new gangsta pet," Clarence ad-libs quickly when Peele shows a little too much interest in retrieving his prized kitten in front of a violent toughie -- but it also means the kind of rubbery reactions, on-the-spot impressions and other character comedy that works so well in three-minute installments.

The personae they're known for -- Key the kind of high-energy pleaser and Peele the slower-talking, shoulder-shaking too-cool-for-schooler stoner -- are on display here, but also get scrambled when, for instance, Key is forced to go gangster. Indeed, race is on their minds, both in white and black respective perceptions as well as competing notions of black identity, as when Clarence's tweedily white demeanor drops for something more street.

Earlier in the week, Atencio told The Times this was all part of the movie's ambition.

"The thesis of the show in a lot of ways was identity and where people feel comfortable and code-switching and different forms that identity can take on," he said. "And that extends to the movie, and especially when it comes to masculinity and the expectations of men, and especially African American men, and how that changes depending on the context of their situation." (He also said that "the thing that I’m really excited about is that it certainly is everything comedically that people love about the show, but it’s in a different packaging. The guys are playing characters that are very grounded and much closer to who they are as people.")

In keeping with their style and the contractual requirements of modern comedies, a number of pop-culture in-jokes go beyond the title subject. A running George Michael gag gets closer to the patience threshold than a 1980s Top 40 radio station; more freshly, a celebrity cameo in the form of an unlikely actor lands nicely (let's just say those who want to see a "Scary Movie" staple reach an untimely end will be satisfied).

But the action-spoof moments don't work as well, playing on every trope in the book with overdone absurdity, itself an overdone technique. As far back as 1980s comedies like "Adventures in Babysitting" were getting ordinary people into impossibly crime-riddled situations while, going back to Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movies, many genre cliches were sent up with silliness. There are also at least six false endings. 

The diminishing-returns rule of comedian-driven features, and the old line that five minutes of comedy can get weaker when it stretches to 105 minutes, is not always disproved here.

But "Keanu" is also admittedly a work in progress, and if there's one thing Key and Peele have proved it's their ability to react nimbly (not to mention read a zeitgeist).

Before the film started, Peele riffed on the idea. "if you like it," he told the audience, this is the finished product. "If you don't like it, we're changing it." he said, and this movie in fact isn't their movie at all--it's "'John Wick 2.'" Here's hoping by the end of next month they've retained all that works but made a few tweaks in the high-level spirit of that joke.

Times staff writer Mark Olsen contributed to this report.


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