While dogs have a storied history on film, cats long had a reputation as camera-shy — think of the scene in François Truffaut's Day for Night, where a kitten confounds a director with its refusal to lap milk on cue. But then the amateur cat video conquered the world, demonstrating once and for all that felines in the right mood can be pretty amusing.
Accordingly, 2016 brings us two cat-themed comedies. In August, audiences will be treated (?) to Kevin Spacey playing a humorless tycoon trapped in the body of a cat named Mr. Fuzzypants. And this month, a tabby kitten named Keanu instigates a gang war with the unignorable appeal of his piercing mew.
Keanu is the first starring vehicle for the sketch-comedy duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who bring director Peter Atencio and writer Alex Rubens with them from their cult Comedy Central series "Key & Peele" (2012-2015). While the movie delivers a respectable rather than whopping number of laughs, it's a good enough sampling of the stars' sharp wits and comic chemistry to send the uninitiated off in search of their sketches.
The story revolves around two central jokes. The first is semi-absurdist: Everyone who meets the kitten falls in gooey love and wants to cuddle him forever. First encountered as the favored pet of a drug lord, Keanu becomes the lone survivor of a bloody gangland massacre. He finds his way to the doorstep of stoner photographer Rell (Peele), who embraces the photogenic kitty as his new muse. But burglars nab Keanu, and a heartbroken Rell persuades his family-man buddy, Clarence (Key), to help him catch the cat-nappers.
The clues lead them to a street gang's strip-club headquarters, where the mild-mannered duo makes hilariously awkward attempts to blend in. The film's second central joke hinges on a form of culture clash, familiar from comedies ranging from The Hangover to Horrible Bosses to Let's Be Cops. Impersonating a pair of cold-blooded thugs, these two yuppies are way out of their depth — especially Clarence, whose playlist is heavy on George Michael. As Rell puts it to him, "You sound like Richard Pryor doing an imitation of a white guy." And naturally it's the buttoned-up Clarence who soon unleashes his id and takes the pretense to ridiculous — and dangerous — heights.
The film's plot unfolds predictably, drawing much of its energy from the bickering and banter between the two stars. The pace begins to drag whenever they're separated — for instance, during an overlong setpiece in which Rell and a gang member (Tiffany Haddish) peddle drugs to a decadent Hollywood clique presided over by slob-comedy queen Anna Faris (as herself).
At such moments, we may start missing Keanu, whose screen presence is surprisingly fresh and uncloying. There's some CGI involved, yes, but the cat (or cats, since an array of similar tabbies was used) isn't subjected to reaction shots with humanlike facial expressions. Despite doing a few things that no self-respecting cat would do, Keanu generally retains his feline aloofness.
By the time Vermont's own Luis Guzmán shows up as a drug kingpin, it's clear that in this film's world, the worship of kitty cuteness transcends all barriers. (So, to Clarence's delight, do George Michael's grooves.) It's not the edgiest conceit; while the script sends up racial and class stereotypes, it doesn't confront the audience with anything that might make it too uncomfortable.
Still, Keanu is an amiable shaggy-cat story with just enough bite to get laughs. I bet you're expecting this review to end with a few more cat puns. And you might have probable claws. But scratch that; this publication is about serious mews, not fluff. So let's paws the string of wordplay before you trans-fur this page to the litterbox.
Ahem. Yeah, that cat's pretty cute.