SXSW 2016 Review | ‘Keanu’ is the Cat’s Pajamas
It has become commonplace to defend our motion picture comedies by saying that if they are funny, it doesn’t really matter if they are “good.” But that defense raises a very important question: is it really too much to ask for both?
Keanu is one of the funniest comedies in years, and it is also one of the best comedies in years. It is a very silly film about very silly men in very silly situations because of their very silly affection for a very normal cat. It has wacky violence and surprise celebrity cameos and a fair share of old-fashioned storytelling clichés, and yet it feels distinctive and new.
A lot of the praise should be lobbed at Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the co-stars of Keanu who imbue the film with a natural comic energy. Key plays Clarence, a passive professional team builder whose cousin Rell, played by Peele, is suffering after a harsh breakup. Into their lives trots Keanu, an adorable little kitty who gives Rell purpose, even though that purpose is just to make a calendar of cat photos.
Clarence and Rell don’t know this, but Keanu is no ordinary cat. Or rather, he is an exceptionally ordinary cat who just lost his owner under exceptional circumstances. Keanu was the sole survivor of a devastating and badass John Woo shoot out, and he soon becomes the unwitting pawn of a series of gangsters who want their own “gangster pet.” It falls to Clarence and Rell to get Keanu back, but in order to ingratiate themselves with the criminal element they must become the criminal element, and they have no idea how to do that.
That set-up probably sounds a little familiar. A pair of innocent urbanites who have to put on airs in order to survive in a world of killers has been done before, very recently, and very badly in the Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart vehicle Get Hard. But there are a lot of differences between Keanu and Get Hard: Key and Peele’s film is funnier, definitely, but more important than that, Keye and Peele’s film doesn’t come across as racist and homophobic.
Keanu is less about racial stereotypes and more about masculine archetypes. The joke is that Clarence and Rell are finally given an excuse to indulge in their testosterone impulses, to posture in front of their fellow men, to speak confidently and with purpose, to stick up for themselves. That the only excuse they have to finally do so is a preposterous false pretense is the joke, and it is a consistently amusing one.
I laughed hard enough while watching Keanu that I began to seriously worry about losing consciousness. The constant juxtaposition of naiveté and violence and a cute widdle kitty cat never stops being funny, although the movie does run out of steam a little bit before the big climax. That was probably unavoidable, since the film has to get a little more serious in order to raise the stakes, and besides, you can only laugh so hard for so long. But then that climax blows the roof off the mother and brings the whole film back with a witty, ridiculous, extremely entertaining bang.
Keanu is the real deal. It’s silly without being condescending. It’s smart without being smug. It is the “good time at the movies” that we are constantly looking for and rarely ever get. It’s the cat’s meow.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.