Keegan-Michael Key, a beanstalk of nervous energy, and Jordan Peele, stockier and smoother, fit the profile of a classic comedy duo; they earn plenty of laughs just standing side by side. But they’re also sketch-comedy chameleons, meaning that they rarely settle into a static dynamic. On their brilliant, now-defunct variety show Key & Peele, the two would take turns playing foil for each other, like actors in a two-man stage show swapping parts night to night. Keanu, their first big-screen starring vehicle, finds a way to preserve that role-playing component: Key and Peele appear as ordinary, buttoned-up dudes forced to masquerade as cold-blooded badasses—a premise that allows both to be cutups and straight men, to go wildly over the top and fish-out-of-water reactive, all depending on the scene. The film is a one-joke comedy, but the joke is decent, and it helps that the actors know how to deliver it.
Okay, there’s a second joke too, and it involves a cat so adorable that even the most hardened career criminals would risk their empires to hold onto it. Narrowly escaping the bloodbath of the opening scene—the culprits are the aforementioned badasses, two silent assassin bogeymen—a mewling grey kitten ends up on the doorstep of recently dumped stoner artist Rell (Peele), who instantaneously bonds with the animal. When someone catnaps Keanu, as his new owner names him, Rell and his uptight family-man cousin Clarence (Key) go poking around on the wrong side of Los Angeles, eventually stumbling into the strip-club HQ of gangster Cheddar (Method Man). It’s here that Rell and Clarence are confused for their doppelgängers—both played, naturally, by Key and Peele—and haphazardly rechristen themselves Tectonic and Shark Tank, adopting alter egos to find the cat.
Keanu builds most of its gags around this mistaken-identity plot, in which two normal nerds try to walk, talk, and behave like streetwise killers. It’s a grand bluff, and the stars have a lot of fun with the charade, especially during the scene where Rell and Clarence blatantly suppress their panic-attack relief after surviving their first meeting with Cheddar. The pair are so consistently funny, bullshitting their way through every situation, that it’s sometimes possible to ignore how thin the movie around them really is. A scenario is much harder to sustain for 90 minutes than for three, and the script—written by Peele and Alex Rubens—often betrays the sketch-comedy background of the stars. Some gags get repeated ad nauseam, like Clarence’s undying love for George Michael (which culminates in a drug-trip recreation of the “Faith” video that just kind of sits there). Other times, the film kills time with labored detours, as during a protracted exchange with Anna Faris, playing herself. Not since Let’s Be Cops has an action-comedy relied so heavily on chemistry trumping material.
Like its main characters, Keanu plays tough (there are flashes of sudden violence), but it’s soft and gooey at heart, pushing Clarence and Rell through programmatic actualization arcs. Will the former learn to stand up for himself and earn the respect of his wife and daughter? Will the latter get over his heartache and woo gangbanging beauty Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish)? What you end up missing most is a little satirical bite. Keanu often plays like a vague stoner-comedy relative of the Harold & Kumar series, with a purring feline (inevitably voiced by his namesake in a fantasy sequence) serving the same plot-advancing function as a bad case of the munchies. But the Harold & Kumar films, for all their broad hijinks, consistently managed to slip in some sly racial and cultural commentary—and so, for that matter, did Key and Peele themselves, just about every week on television. Keanu flirts with really getting into the identity politics implied by its premise; there’s a very funny tossed-off bit in which Clarence and Rell argue about who grew up in a rougher neighborhood, each insisting that he was beat up by bigger, scarier guys. Mostly, though, the film just coasts on the expert bluster and hysterical shtick of its headliners. The best deserve better.