‘Keanu’ and Critical Confusion

Keanu, which feels like a feature version of the sketch show which shares its stars, Key & Peele, has received consistently positive but heavily caveated criticism. Film writers and podcasters praise the eponymous kitten and, of course, Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the improv comics cum sketch show virtuosos cum movie stars. Those critics, even those usually offering unique points of view and great insight, have also formed a chorus working their way through a medley of “too long” and “thin plot” and “stumbling a little from sketch to feature,” making most reviews of Keanu mixed by definition but largely positively in tone. This reluctance to condemn the film’s supposed shortcomings speaks volumes about the good will Peele, Key, and their collaborators—such as K&P veteran director Peter Atencio—have engendered through their previous work and the recognized achievements of Keanu. But the reluctance also points to the less obvious ways this film, so familiar on the surface, operates which makes how we process and discuss the film challenging but rewarding.

Key & Peele (the sketch show, not just the two stars), always unpredictable, moved deftly between parody, satire, and the absurd (well…the absurd was always present, but there has to be a miscellaneous category for a show with such variety). Both cast and crew frequently nailed both the visual style and tropes of much loved pop cultural artifacts before turning the seemingly familiar into something wholly original and wildly funny. This first part is parody. But the show never dwelled too long on the merely absurd; like its forbear, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the clever or just silly were always part of a larger mosaic including damning satire delivered with the style and precision of the best ballet.

The parody is most apparent in the duo’s new feature film. A good example is Keanu/Iglesias/New Jack the kitten, who can be directly tracked to the beagle puppy from John Wick, an obvious and acknowledged inspiration. By replicating and then ratcheting up an element from an existing movie, the filmmakers are producing spoof or parody in the same manner as Mel Brooks films such as Space Balls. These films are often viewed less seriously, and we expect a quick, clever vehicle for jokes and visual gags relying on our relationship to other well-known films, and, sometimes, we hope to learn a little along the way.

Keanu delivers the jokes, revels in the talents of its stars, and even gives us some recognizable visual touchstones taken from films treasured by Peele and co-writer/director Atencio, but the film goes a step farther than Brooks’ spoofs. The transcendence stems nost just from the wholly original elements like specific, fresh characters but also from bold formal moves. The false endings–one of which comes with a deus ex machina twist—can be traced to not only action/comedies but genre films in general. But there is no neat relationship between source material and this movie. This risks the taking seriously of some plot elements and formal choices unless the film is viewed as a kind of video essay operating on a deeper and more subtle level than the tone would suggest.

For example, the extended episode in the home of Anna Ferris (playing “herself”) harkens back to the excellent scene with Alfred Molina from Boogie Nights. Keanu’s scene, however, does not go shot-for-shot or give us more than a bathrobe (not much like Molina’s) and some drugs to connect the homage to the earlier film. Furthermore, Keanu’s apparently spoofed genre doesn’t match up with Boogie Nights or other perhaps-maybe-kinda inspirations. We’re used to a straight line between source material and parody, but Keanu is less concerned with traditional parody than celebrating a sampling of film history by letting Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key) play in the universe(s) of the film’s inspirations, and in that way Keanu is situated closer to Quintin Tarantino than Mel Brooks.

This approach is new and quite risky. The heart of this film is not so much Rell’s irrational affection for a stray kitten or the underdeveloped Clarence-and-his-marriage subplot but a complicated relationship between the creators and a loosely connected set of movies. A traditional parody can teach more about genre than working through a queue of similar films or even reading some criticism. The best case outcome is a greater understanding of the human condition through an examination of human creations. This film, like K&P before it, sacrifices this examination for another, perhaps superior, sociological method.

One of K&P’s most famous products is Luther, President Obama’s “anger translator.” Over-the-top and brimming with outrage, Luther, played by Key, is juxtaposed with Peele’s Obama (and notably the actual President Obama) and his reserved and laconic demeanor for laughs. This is a parody of the public persona of one of the world’s most public figures. It would appear that the sketches are using the familiar elements of political performance—form—as an excuse for outlandishness.

But the underlying commentary and criticism—that the absurdity lies not in Luther’s wide-eyed invective but, rather, with the social expectations pulling public figures away from honest humanity and toward something palatable for middle America—is satire. In recent years, satire has come all too often in the form of “fake” news programs or sketches relying on clichéd and obvious observations about our political leaders. The subtler work done by K&P is exposing the restraints we place on celebrities, especially black celebrities. This social satire is prescient and achieved only with a keen but human ear for what is most silly and sad about us.

Keanu continues another bit of social satire originating from the recently ended sketch show. Rell and Clarence adopt “hard” alter egos, Tectonic and Shark Tank, in order to survive their quickly escalating encounter with a fictional LA gang made up of cast-offs from the Crips and Bloods called “The 17th Street Blips.” The New Jack City inspired personas, so different than the “real” characters (Rell claims Clarence sounds like Richard Pryor’s oft employed white dude impression), reminds the initiated of the two young men blustering and chest puffing despite being scared shitless after watching a horror film from a memorable K&P sketch.

That sketch and the extended exploration in Keanu touch on uncomfortable truths about gender and racial stereotypes and performance while at the same time producing joke-laden and absurd situational comedy. While that comedy can be heavy handed, which is not to call it a failure, the satirical elements are more difficult to grasp and articulate, and thus more impressive. Key and Peele, both of mixed race and accomplished performers, are in an uncommon position to both feel these serious issues and translate them into a product which is meant to be–and often received as–fun and funny.

There has been, in some corners, disappointment with the satire (or lack thereof) and the filmmaking craft on display in Keanu. The criteria for judging this film, however, are tragically unclear because Keanu engages in a great deal of metacommentary without breaking the fourth wall or mimicking certain films, such as John Wick, too closely in terms of plot, character, and visuals. Because the movie creates something new without leaving some traditional elements of both buddy comedy and parody completely behind, checking the usual critical boxes is almost impossible. The pacing and cohesion (I’m thinking specifically of Clarence’s George Michael hallucination) are, perhaps, sacrificed in the quest for something new. The fun, funniness, and the creative prowess brought from Key & Peele, however, are, thankfully, none the poorer for the sacrifices. If a comedy can be fun and funny and look good doing so, isn’t that something new worth it even if we have to change how we think about it?

Image Source: (Chris Pizzello / Invision)

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