In a tender and telling early scene between Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) and his wife, Hannah (Nia Long), our co-protagonist is warned about suppressing who he is to please others. The scene infers that Clarence is so good at being pleasant, he’s drifted into subservience. He makes a joke with his grade school daughter; she retorts, “You’re embarrassing me, Clarence.” His wife accompanies her daughter on a weekend playdate with her friend and the friend’s father, Spencer (Rob Huebel) obvious to the audience that it’s a thinly veiled set up to make his move. Clarence says nothing. Time and appeasement left him utterly defanged, out of touch with his truest self. Only a wild weekend trying to save his friend’s gangsta kitten from a Method Man-led drug empire can help him find himself. Self-discovery is as much a trope as anything, but for the biracial leads of Keanu, it’s a fresh, exciting, and occasionally side-splitting vehicle for a well-worn plot.
Keanu is the first, and hopefully not last, film from the brilliant minds of sketch comedians Key and Jordan Peele (stars of Comedy Central’s five-season sketch show Key & Peele). Keanu is not Keanu Reeves — except when he’s modeling for Rell’s (Peele) photo calendar — he’s a kitten that’s seen a lot of gang violence but finds his way to a depressed and weed-addled man’s doorstep in his time of need. When those gangstas abduct his cat, Rell and Clarence go deep undercover Cheddar’s (Method Man) 17th Street Blips to get the pet back. Yes, the 17th Street Blips are a portmanteau and merger of the Bloods and Crips. Their gang colors are purple. This movie doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Most of the humor goes back to their impressive, absurdist dedication to fitting in with a hardened, alpha-male (and alpha-female lieutenant “Hi-C,” ripped straight from The Wire’s Snoop, played flawlessly by Tiffany Hadish) crew the initial tension of being yourself when you’re unsure who that is.
Key and Peele made their name satirizing the black experience, especially as it relates to a subset of blackness in proximity to white people. Being middle class, or in a predominantly white college, dating white women (the real life Key and Peele are married and engaged to white women, respectfully) and of course, being biracial, are in close view in many of their most popular skits. Keegan and Jordan routinely transport their viewers between the two worlds they traverse. Sometimes, it’s learning how to manage your anger around white people, like Peele’s Obama impression, paired with Luther, Obama’s personal “anger-translator” articulating the thought life of the President.
Or, sometimes, they’ll show you how they learned to blacken their tone around other black folks — a well that’s hilariously revisited through the entire second act of Keanu while proving to the black-led Blips they belong. Here, their best, poorly-conceived attempts at ebonics shine, like Clarence’s perfectly ill-advised “Wordness… to the turdness”. He wants to be down with the gang — remember, even his daughter thinks he’s a puss — and gets fulfillment from teaching his gang about minivans. (“You wanna never get pulled over again? You drive an inconspicuous family vehicle!”) Better yet, Clarence cultivates an appreciation for George Michael, letting his clique know “light-skinned.” Very light skinned.
Some Key and Peele fans watching — and there were certainly plenty in the audience chuckling at the liturgy of inside jokes from the show — will want more pointed observations. Considering the R-rating Keanu earned with every stripper, drug reference, and exaggerated use of the N-word, the social commentary the duo is known and appreciated for is surprisingly muted. Especially compared to skits like “Negrotown,” “Gay Wedding Advice,” or Acapella:
So, yes, there’s less of an edge. There are no black Republicans clapping in metronome and wife-ing white women in Stepford-tandem. No white zombies are clutching their purses and locking their car doors from beyond the grave. But, if Keanu is your introduction to the stylings of Key and Peele, (or you’re a diehard paying close enough attention) Rell’s faux-baritonal ebonics and Clarence’s growing comfort with his skin and emotions sufficiently wink at the tension embedded throughout their comedy: the particular struggle to be black. Depending on their audience, the film, like the way they present themselves, can mean something entirely different.