The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Keanu is a movie with two key jokes fueling the plot, both of them very funny. Even if it doesn't always capitalize on those jokes as fully as it could, there is enough to them to create fairly consistent laughter. On the surface, this may look like little more than a goofball fish-out-of-water comedy. In some respects, that's exactly what it is. But part of the reason why it works so well is that you gradually realize there's something far more substantive going on, and that makes the bits that work hit even harder.

The stars are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, whose popular Comedy Central show has garnered a devoted following. The former portrays Clarence, a square family man whose wife (Nia Long) encourages him to stop trying to be Mr. Domesticity and reconnect with his true self. The latter is Clarence's cousin Rell, a depressed stoner who has just been dumped by his girlfriend. One day, a cute stray kitten makes its way to Rell's door. He takes the cat in and suddenly starts to come out of his funk. Soon thereafter, the kitten, which Rell names Keanu, is kidnapped, much to his dismay. Thanks to Rell's weed dealer (Will Forte), he and Clarence learn that the culprit is a local drug kingpin named Cheddar (Method Man). They go to his club to get Keanu back, pretending to be dealers themselves, and before long they become embroiled in a complicated drug operation.

The first, and most obvious, joke in Keanu is the MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock coined that term, which refers to “a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story.” There is often very little specificity to the MacGuffin. Its only job is to get the wheels turning and keep them turning. What it is, or why everyone wants it, is largely irrelevant. In Keanu, the kitten is the MacGuffin. A lot of tough, angry, violent criminals all adore this little cat and are determined to lay claim to it. Cheddar is only one of them. Why they want it doesn't matter. It's just a funny contrast to see drug dealers and gangsters all fighting each other over something so cute and cuddly. This also represents a witty twist on all the films we've seen over the years in which drug dealers fight over money or turf.

The second joke is even better and, when you get right down to it, actually a little transgressive. Everyone is familiar with the “thug” and “gangsta” clichés, both onscreen and in real life. Keanu turns them on their respective ears, giving us two African-American men whose only knowledge of “thug life” comes from movies and music videos. Clarence and Rell rely on media cliches of gang members to convince Cheddar and his crew that they are legit. They give other characters hard stares, do awkward looking “pimp walks”, and randomly insert the N-word into conversation. Keanu repeatedly does variations of this gag, showing how alien and unnatural these things are to the two leads.

Nowhere is the impact of this joke better felt than in a lengthy mid-movie sequence in which Clarence and Rell take a batch of drugs to the home of a well-known movie star (whose identity will remain anonymous here, except to say that the star in question gamely does an audacious cameo). Rell goes inside and, unsure how to maintain his gangsta ruse, helps to make everything go stunningly wrong. Meanwhile, Clarence stays in the car with some of Cheddar's crew (including one member played by Straight Outta Compton's Jason Mitchell). When they discover that his cell phone is filled with George Michael music, he attempts to convince them that the singer is “an O.G.” This scene, which probably lasts at least 12 or 15 minutes, continually plays with racial stereotypes in a manner that is hilarious. The “thugs” show a softer side, the family man finds that he actually likes playing the role of bad boy, and the stoner discovers how useless pop culture cliches are in the real world. It all serves to point out how one-sided many screen depictions of African-Americans are.

Key and Peele have well-honed chemistry together, which transfers well to the big screen. Director Peter Atencio keeps the pace tight, nicely balancing the sillier and the more subtly satiric elements. Not every joke lands, and Keanu paints itself into a bit of a corner with its third act. Everything has to be tied up, which means the plot is required to take itself seriously at times. The film doesn't quite find a way to bring humor to the way certain story threads are resolved.

Regardless, Keanu is a smart, observant comedy with some sharp insight into racial cliches. It's about a kitten, but it's also not about the kitten. As for Key and Peele, it would certainly appear that they can find just as much success together in movies as they have on television. Keanu is a solid vehicle for their comic sensibility.

( out of four)

Blu-ray Features:

Keanu arrives on DVD and Blu-ray August 2. There is a small selection of bonus materials on the Blu-ray, starting with "My First Movie," a three-minute bit in which the film's stars offer pretend advice to the kitten playing Keanu. Next up are fifteen minutes of deleted scenes. Most of them are just trims of already-existing moments, although there is one funny bit in which Clarence and Rell carry on a fairly complex conversation solely through facial expressions. The other standout is a sequence in which Cheddar addresses a room full of people, inadvertently making a reference to the film My Dinner With Andre that causes Clarence to crack up. Finally, there's a five-minute gag reel that offers a few laughs.

KEANU is rated R for violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.

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