We expect our comedies to be hit-and-miss. They're different from action movies, which in recent years have become numbingly relentless — hit-and-never-miss, unless you're third thug from the left and swarthy, and your job is to shoot and then die.
Now we have the strange case of "Keanu," starring two extremely funny people, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, just off their five-season sketch comedy TV run, in their first theatrical showcase as a comedy duo.
Written by Peele and "Key & Peele" alum Alex Rubens and directed by fellow "Key & Peele" veteran Peter Atencio, the movie is hit-and-miss in an unusually clear-cut way. It's funny for 45 to 50 minutes. Then it's strained and abrasive and entirely too devoted to action-movie tropes for 45 to 50 minutes, minus end credits. I can recommend the first half.
"Keanu" is recommendable if only for the bit where Peele and Key, who play L.A. cousins, one a sad-sack stoner, the other a tightly wound minivan owner and family man in salmon-colored shorts, are sitting in a car, arguing. The cousins are about to become mixed up in a drug war and the pursuit of a very popular kitten. They're in the car, debating, and in expertly varied degrees of subtlety, both actors refuse to let the other have the last word. The bit keeps going, and it's fantastic — completely off-plot (who cares about plot with a movie like this?), daringly extended but, in the end, just right.
You can't force comic chemistry, in case you hadn't noticed. You can, however, make the mistake of forcing your stars into settling for weaker material than they deserve. We meet the kitty star of "Keanu" in the prologue, when the prized pet of a ruthless drug lord escapes a gangland slaughter and ends up on the doorstep of Rell (Peele), whose girlfriend has recently bailed on the relationship. "She said my life wasn't going anywhere," Rell says, weeping in bed while lighting up a bong.
The cat changes everything, and the light comes back into Rell's eyes. But then Rell's place is ransacked one night and Keanu is cat-napped. The rest of the movie follows Rell and Clarence (Key) on an odyssey of feline retrieval that puts them in direct conflict with drug lord Cheddar (Method Man); his crew, dominated by Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish); the notorious Allentown killers (Key and Peele in cameos), who had the cat before them; and an increasingly violent and wearying script.
Movies generally do not collapse within a specific scene, but "Keanu" does, or did for me, at least. In a key drug-deal sequence, to assert their street cred and recover the cat, our pretend-thug heroes accompany Cheddar's crew as they deliver a nasty new recreational hallucinogen to the Hollywood home of "Scary Movie" regular Anna Faris (convincing as herself). While Clarence turns his newfound colleagues on to the musical glories of George Michael in the minivan outside, Rell and company navigate an escalating situation inside. The scene plods on, offering a few stray laughs but no momentum. And before you know it, "Keanu" is in trouble.
The second half relies on bug-eyed panic and screaming and blood squibs and the obvious, in all the obvious directions. The actors nearly get lost in their own movie. On the other hand, people love these guys so much, for such evident and entertaining reasons, that "Keanu" may find its audience after all. I prefer my comedies funny throughout, but I suppose that's crazy talk.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes