Keanu, the new Key and Peele movie, is, I think, the funniest comedy about racial code switching in the history of film. It also stars an adorable kitten. So you probably now have enough information to decide whether or not to see it. My work here is done.
What’s that? Oh, code-switching. You know, the way a bi-lingual speaker alternates between two language variants over the course of a single conversation. Or between two linguistic modes, or cultural referents. We’re all multi-lingual, and we do this all the time, suggesting class and ethnicity in how we speak. And nobody has built their comedy on this notion more than the smart, savvy comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.
On their Comedy Central show, they repeatedly built sketches around the various social roles African-Americans assume. In fact, Key and Peele are educated, middle-class fantasy nerds. But they can, and often do, play urban gangbangers, hilariously.
As they do in Keanu. Peele plays Rell, and Key plays Clarence, best friends, upscale and affluent. When Rell’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he’s initially distraught, but is comforted when a kitten shows up at his door. Before long, he’s photographing the kitty wearing costumes in a variety of movie set recreations. He’s making a calendar, he says. Then, on a weekend when Clarence’s wife and children have to be out of town, the cat, named Keanu, is abducted. Clarence and Rell go on a search. And discover that Keanu has been taken by a street gang led by a guy named Cheddar (Method Man). And so Clarence and Rell code switch; begin talking and acting like gangbangers. And its really very funny.
Cheddar finds their act convincing, and sends them out with a few of his gang members. They’re to show these guys the ropes, in exchange for the kitten. And before you know it, Clarence is introducing these thugs to corporate team-building exercises. (“The key, guys, is communication.”) Then, while Rell is making a big drug sale to Anna Faris (playing herself as a cokehead) with a female gangsta named Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), Clarence introduces the other gang members to his favorite musician; George Michael. (“But what happened to Andrew Ridgeley” “He was never seen again” “They offed him?!?!” “He was never. Seen. Again.” Anyone familiar with the history of Wham! will get that joke.)
Eventually, Cheddar’s gang runs into another gang, this one run by Bacon (Luis Guzman). Both gangs, it turns out, want Keanu, mostly because he’s a very cute little kitty. And violence ensues, with Key and Peele scared witless and Keanu busily dodging bullets. It turns out that there is something inexpressibly funny about long, slow-mo, gangbanger shootout scenes when you add a kitten to the mix.
I kept wondering what I was missing. Key and Peele are exceptionally bright guys. Is this just a comic action movie with a kitten, intended as their breakthrough out of sketch comedy and into mainstream movie-making? Possibly that’s all that’s going on. But I do think there’s more to it than that. The male African-American experience is not, after all, just about drug gangs and violence. In fact, somewhat nerdy middle-class dudes like Clarence and Rell are closer to the norm than the likes of Cheddar and Hi-C. But because of the movies, we know all about urban violence, and gang warfare. Surely this movie is as much satire as it is parody. Surely there’s at least one level of protest built into its structure. Which is why one of their most famous and successful sketches involves not just the preternatural cool of Barack Obama, but the seething rage that (we imagine), may underlie it. (Careful; there’s some language)