What We Learned From Key And Peele’s ‘In-Progress’ Screening Of ‘Keanu’ At SXSW

Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele were two of the biggest celebrities in Austin Friday night/Saturday morning, giving away t-shirts to the massive line for their movie, and later throwing stuffed kittens to the crowd before the screening (neither of them could throw far enough to reach the balcony, FYI). The crowd didn’t seem to need much pumping up though, despite it being 12:45 am (45 minutes behind schedule) on the night when we were already set to lose an hour to the time change. The dudes were there to introduce an “in-progress” screening of Keanu, their comedy about a kidnapped cat named for a cool breeze. What does “in-progress” mean, exactly? According to Peele (Key is the bald one), “If you guys like it, it’s done.”

It’s hard to tell how much truth there was to that joke (and a comedy with this much ad-libbing allows for endless tinkering), but I’m casting my vote for “not done.” It’s hard to write that, by the way. I know it’s disappointing to read. The film seemed to have everything, two of the best sketch comedy actors in the world, and a screwball plot about an adorable kitten. But it’s currently a collection of sketches that never really build on each other. They aren’t bad sketches, mind you — most mildly funny, a few memorable, a few not great — they just never really build up to anything. And trust me, no one wanted this movie to be amazing more than me. I look at that banner image and I still think this should be the best movie in the world even though I’ve already seen it.

Key and Peele are so good at making almost anything funny, probably because they’re so good at making anything funny, that it feels like they never finished writing this. The plot concerns Peele’s kitten, who gets stolen. The duo’s subsequent search takes them to meet the local crime boss, Cheddar, played by Method Man, who works out of strip club with a high-larious name. Through a case of mistaken identity, they end up having to play along with gangsters doing a bunch of gangster stuff to get the cat back, even though they’re nerds. There’s a hint of the kind of racial satire mixed with silliness that makes their show so great there, but the movie never really expands upon the “nerds pretending to be gangsters” joke. They just film different iterations of it, starting strong and then repeating until it gets old.

Key and Peele just never get real enough here. There are breadcrumbs of interesting characters at the beginning, two black guys arguing over who got beat up by the toughest schoolmates and which one is the bigger nerd, but they quickly retreat into types. They have their usual spazzy manic energy and willingness to commit, and there’s a staginess and immediate relatability that works in their sketch show. But they never dig deep enough for us to feel like we know who they are. In a 90-minute movie, I need a little more than “one guy is uptight and hyper-manic, and the other guy is laid back and hyper-manic.” By the time the end comes, they still feel more like two guys up on stage than two guys across from me at a bar. This seems to happen a lot in comedy movies, by the way, where everyone gets so caught up in offering “big!” and “relatable!” that they never quite get to “interesting.” Wow, one guy has to man up to win back his wife’s respect? I’ve never seen that before.

Keanu isn’t hard to sit through, because Peele can, and literally does, make answering the phone with an unintelligible noise funny. But the scenes don’t feel like they’re going anywhere, just treading water. It feels like decent crowd work, a warm-up act for a more substantive movie that never starts. The script and directing don’t give them much to work with, just empty space to ham it up — the comedic equivalent of tossing LeBron the ball and hoping he makes an amazing play while everyone else just stands around. He does make a great play a decent amount of the time, but goddamn, someone set a f*cking pick!

Key and Peele are a slightly new deviation on the super stale “fish-out-of-water-in-gangsta-town” premise, but not enough to make it work for 90 minutes. Other bits are just whiffs all around, like a sequence during which we find out a character played by Anna Faris is actually the actress Anna Faris. Remember when this didn’t work in Ocean’s 13 and Queen of the Damned? Well, I do. Please, stop it with the character-looks-like-actor-playing-him joke. That is the worst joke.

Long story short, Keanu isn’t the home run I was hoping for, and I admit there’s probably a little more pressure to provide substance in a movie I’m staying up until four in the morning for. I don’t know that Keanu needed much story, but I know it needed more. Nonetheless, the crowd seemed to like it. I swear to God, the row behind me laughed at the Warner Bros. logo at the beginning. And on the way out, I heard someone telling her friend “That was the funniest movie I’ve seen in a long time!”

Takes all kinds, I guess. Keanu opens April 29th.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.