Key and Peele, the duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, are best known and loved—for the Comedy Central sketch show bearing their name, which ran from 2012 to 2015. These small bits were blissful, mini-works of casual genius: In the days when our current president seemed too reluctant to stand up to Congress, Key created and played Luther, Obama’s “anger translator,” who stood on the sidelines spewing all the things the Commander-in-Chief just couldn’t bring himself to say. Then there was the “East/West College Bowl” pregame routine, in which the two played an assortment of fake college football stars, introducing themselves on-camera with increasingly outlandish made-up names (Jackmerius Tacktheritrix, Davoin Shower-Handel, Swirvithan L’Goodling-Splatt). The routine wasn’t just an example of masterful wordplay; it worked because Key and Peele created a mini-personality for each player. Some were street, some were so soft-spoken they might be addressing their grandmas. Some would face the camera with a glassy-eyed stare, as if the lens were a robber of souls. A few betrayed an obvious lisp. The gag was as intricate as an infinitesimal set of Russian nesting dolls. If these guys were all stereotypes, there were so many variations that you could hardly stereotype them. That was the heart of the joke, and the brilliance of it.
But Key and Peele, obviously masters of sketch comedy, haven’t headlined a movie together until now. In Keanu, they play cousins who tangle with a fake Los Angeles street gang (they’re called the 17th Street Blips) as they search for a missing kitten. Does this wild idea work? It does—just maybe not in the way you expect it to. The movie’s rhythms take some getting used to—it feels strange to adjust to the idea of Key and Peele playing, essentially, only one character apiece for a stretch of some 90 minutes. Peele is Rell Williams, the kitten’s owner: He’s just broken up with his girlfriend when this tiny tabby charmer shows up at his door. “Oh—can I help you?” he says in response to the small alien’s mewed greeting. (Peele’s timing in this moment may be the most perfect thing in the movie.) Key plays Rell’s cousin, Clarence, a straight-arrow guy whose wife (Nia Long) has gone away for the weekend, instructing him to loosen up for a change. He and Rell start with a trip to the multiplex: “That was the best Liam Neeson movie I have ever seen!”
But Rell’s kitten—whom he’s named Keanu, because it’s possibly the best cat name ever—is a cat with a past. And because he is so amazingly cute, everybody wants him, and so he gets cat-napped. Clarence and Rell trace his whereabouts to the lair of Cheddar, the grand fromage of the 17th Street Blips (he’s played, with faux-somber menace, by Method Man). To ingratiate themselves with Cheddar, and get the kitten back, the two turn gangsta: They adopt dumb fake names (Rell is Tectonic, Clarence is Shark Tank) and they work hard to fit in, because they have to. The other members, among them Bud (Jason Mitchell, the superb actor who played Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton) and Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), would knife them soon as look at them.
And so Clarence and Rell become people who are figuring out how to fit in. Clarence, even though he’s big on enunciation and given to wearing trim plaid shirts and light-colored pants, slips into gang life with ease: He has a marvelous sequence in which he tries to sell his new friends on the merits of George Michael. Rell, dressed in a pastel aqua hoodie and with a face that radiates placid, cherubic innocence, has a harder time of it. When he talks tough, he gets the words right; it’s the inflections that are all off. He may as well be speaking a Martian language.
It’s funny at first. Then it isn’t. And then, somehow, it’s funny again. The pleasures of Keanu (which was written by Peele and Axel Rubens and directed by Peter Atencio, who also directed the Key and Peele Show) are different from those of the sketch routines. Key and Peele, hilarious as they are, are subtle performers, not raucous ones. And at certain points, the movie temporarily loses steam. Maybe it’s because you unconsciously expect them to shift into other personas, and they’re stuck in the same ones for the span of the movie.
But once you settle into Keanu, it works. And in many ways, it’s of a piece with everything else Key and Peele have done. When you’re a person of color in this country, everyone else, it seems, gets to decide who and what you are. Rell and Clarence know who they are. But in their mission to reclaim a kitten, of all things, they have to play at being stereotypes—and even then, their individuality is defiant. Without even trying, Key and Peele tease out the connections and distinctions between racial identity and personal identity. Sometimes the two are the same, and sometimes they couldn’t have less to do with one another—when you’re busy just doing the work of being a human being, how do you even know where one leaves off and the other begins? Key and Peele are about (among many other things) the impossibility, and the foolishness, of making hard-and-fast rules.
Keanu does have one flaw: Not enough kitten. The captivating smidgen of fur appears only occasionally, at one point wearing a tiny do-rag and a mini gold medallion. Otherwise, he is naked, as he should be. Actually, it took seven tabbies to play Keanu, which means Key and Peele were far outnumbered by cat performers. Still, they hold their own. They’re movie stars now, and sometimes that means being cool with letting another cat steal the scene.