IN THEORY, there's nothing wrong with a movie that's a collection of sketches—plenty of great ones are. But of all the sketches collected in Key and Peele's Keanu (which I saw in "in-progress" form at SXSW, though that descriptor seems merely a loophole to allow a public screening before the official premiere), there are none so memorable as the concept itself. To force a bad cat metaphor, Keanu feels like a ball of yarn that Key and Peele were content to just keep batting in the air without unraveling.
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (why couldn't the bald guy be named "Peele"?) are so good at making almost anything funny, that Keanu feels like they maybe just never finished writing it. 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 a strip club named HPV (as STD puns go, this one is... ehhh). There's a case of mistaken identity, and a question of just how far Key and Peele will go to get back a kitty, and then they end up having to play along with gangsters doing a bunch of gangster stuff, even though—get this—they're nerds! Throughout, there's a hint of the kind of racial satire mixed with silliness that makes Key and Peele great—but here, they never really expand on it. Keanu is just "scared nerds acting like tough gangsters" over and over.
Even in a collection-of-sketches movie—maybe even more so in a collection-of-sketches movie—it's up to the characters to keep things compelling, and in Keanu, Key and Peele just never get real enough. They tease 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. Both have their usual spazzy, manic energy and the willingness to commit that works so well in sketch, 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 laidback and hyper-manic." By the time the end comes, Key and Peele still feel more like two guys up on stage than two guys sitting across from me. This seems to happen a lot in modern comedy movies, where everyone gets so caught up in offering "charismatic!" 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.)
Through Key and Peele, Keanu offers a slightly more racially nuanced variation on the super-stale "fish-out-of-water-in-gangsta-town" premise. Other bits are just whiffs all around, like a sequence in which we find out a character played by Anna Faris actually is Anna Faris. I've now seen this attempted with Julia Roberts, Aaliyah, and Marlon Brando, never successfully. Please, I beg of you, stop it with this joke.
Keanu isn't hard to sit through, because Peele can—and literally does—make answering the phone funny. But none of the scenes feel like they're going anywhere. The whole movie 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 either, just empty space to ham it up. It's 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, couldn't someone at least set a pick? Key and Peele are comedy superstars. Keanu is a first-year expansion team.