'Keanu' At SXSW: Notes From A Work-In-Progress Screening Of Key And Peele's First Movie

This is not a review of Keanu. The version that screened at SXSW was described as a work-in-progress cut and changes, both significant and minor, can still occur between now and when the film arrives in theaters. Jokes can be be swapped, sequences can be tightened, and entire scenes can still be excised or added. To say something definitive right now would be unfair.

However, the cut of director Peter Atencio's new comedy that played before a packed house at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin certainly felt like a finished movie...and that's a bit of a mixed bag. So let's break out the questions. Is the big screen debut of beloved comedy Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele funny? Yeah, of course it is. These two can't not be funny. If the trailer made you giggle, there is plenty to enjoy here and you're in for a good time at the movies. But is the film more than the sum of its best jokes? No. At least not in this particular version.

And that's okay! Not every film needs to be a masterpiece and Keanu is a perfectly fine comedy filled with inspired gags and huge laughs and The Cutest Goddamn Kitten You've Ever Seen. This is crowdpleaser and it goes down easy enough. Even when it bogs down, it's a pleasant, amusing watch. Unfortunately, the most disappointed people in the audience may be hardcore Key & Peele fans – there are individual sketches from that show that offer more to chew on and consider than the entirety of this film.

There are two jokes in Keanu. Number one: The Cutest Goddamn Kitten You've Ever Seen finds itself in all kinds of perilous situations, sprinting through gun battles, sitting in the backseat of a care during a high speed chase and so on. Number two: Key and Peele's straight-laced, suburban nerds have to act like hardcore gangsters so they can rescue The Cutest Goddamn Kitten You've Ever Seen from a vicious drug dealer. Both jokes are funny (and occasionally hilarious), but they're all the film has to offer.

Unfortunately, the kitten plot takes a backseat to the fake gangsters plot for the bulk of the film's running time. As funny as the two are (and I cannot state more strongly that these two may be the funniest people on the planet right now), they can only add so much life to this premise – the "awkward guys act tough" subgenre of comedy is a little worn out at this point, even if Key and Peele bring infinitely superior chops to the table than Jamie Kennedy or Rob Schneider. The kitten joke is the fresher and more successful of the film's two gags.

That means endless sequences of our heroes attempting to blend in with violent criminals and the set-up is always the same. They adopt silly voices, awkwardly drop racial slurs, and attempt to spin off the evidence of their boring, middle class existence as something that's actually gangster. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

The biggest laughs come when the film breaks from this pattern: a hilariously bloody gun battle, a genuine bizarre cameo that has to be seen to be believed, a silly dream sequence/dance number, and just about every single moment with The Cutest Goddamn Kitten You've Ever Seen. When Atencio, who has proven himself a filmmaker of incredible range on Key & Peele, breaks from the basic, over-lit comedy style that dominates most of the film, everything truly comes alive. Keanu is less of a movie and more of a collection of inspired moments strung together by a shaggy narrative.

This all sounds more negative than it should. The truth is that Keanu is a ton of fun and enough jokes land hard for this to get a rock-solid recommendation. But those hoping for insightful commentary on race or even an inspired parody of action and crime films (both staples of Key & Peele) will go home wanting. This is a good time at the movies without being a great movie. And that's okay. That's fine. But everyone involved in this film has shown themselves to be capable of more.