It's always dicey when a celebrated comedian moves from TV sketch comedy to the big screen, and for an established comedy duo to make the transition successfully is even more rare. So maybe we should be thankful that Key and Peele's new movie works at all, rather than criticize it for being a safe, silly toe in the water. If you're in the right mood and seeing it with the right crowd, "Keanu" can put you close to a giggle coma, even as you realize the material's far beneath the talents of its stars. They're Key and Peele, but the movie treats them like Abbott and Costello.
In the five seasons of Comedy Central's "Key & Peele" that concluded last year, Keegan-Michael Key (tall, bug-eyed, high maintenance) and Jordan Peele (short, earnest, easily confused) were able to interweave slapstick, nuanced character comedy, and sharp social jabs without breaking a sweat. The duo can make you laugh hysterically before you realize you're bleeding. And they love to play dress-up.
A feature movie requires that our heroes play consistent characters from one end to the other, though, so here we have Key as a middle-class straight arrow named Clarence and Peele as his slightly less socialized stoner cousin and friend Rell. Clarence drives a minivan, loves his George Michael CDs, and when his wife (Nia Long) takes off for the weekend and asks him to relax and do something for himself, replies "If that's what you want."
Rell, by contrast, is crushed by a recent breakup and crushing on the tiny kitten that shows up on his doorstep early in the film. Naming it Keanu ("I think it means 'cool breeze' in Hawaiian," he says), he devotes his life and a number of theme calendars to the pet. Then Keanu gets stolen in a break-in, and Clarence and Rell have to go into the valley of the gangbangers to retrieve the kitty. The script is written by Peele and Alex Rubens, and that's its one tired premise: Nervous Norbert normals pretending to be tough-talking thugz. Heyyyy, Abbott!
But the movie hums along at a congenial, occasionally very funny stroll, the two leads operating on a comic frequency apparently reserved only for them. The director, Peter Atencio, helmed all the series episodes as well, and if he lets "Keanu" go on too long, at least he understands what makes Key and Peele funny. Not the jokes or the situations but the performers themselves — the rhythms of their interactions, the subtleties of their facial responses.
So the laughs in "Keanu" come from watching Clarence and Rell constantly negotiate the border between their real selves and the bangers named "Shark Tank" and "Tectonic" they must pretend to be if they want to get Keanu back from the 17th Street Blips (so named for being tougher than either the Bloods or the Crips). Some of the additional players are secondary — Will Forte as a corn-rowed weed dealer, Anna Faris as a raucous movie star named Anna Faris — while others are indulged with great charm. A scene in which "Shark Tank" holds court in his minivan, educating his new gangsta friends on the subject of George Michael's "Father Figure" is bliss, not least because it gives the supporting actors (Darrell-Britt Gibson, Jason Mitchell of "Straight Outta Compton," and Jamar Malachi Neighbors) plenty of space to play as well.
Method Man and Luis Guzman get less wiggle room as the movie's primary bad guys and the talented Tiffany Haddish even less as a gangsta love interest with a surprise (or not) up her sleeve. "Keanu" eventually caves in to its most formulaic urges — car chases, gun battles — because that's what movies do, right? All that's missing is the extra sting Key and Peele put into their sketches as a matter of course. Characters bleed in this movie, but we don't, and that's a shame even if it's understandable.
Guys, the water's fine — come on in.
(Note to cat lovers: The title character is played by seven kittens, all of them adorable even when they're not wearing itty-bitty do-rags. Note to "The Matrix" lovers: While Key and Peele's movie doesn't specifically reference actor Keanu Reeves, the voice coming out of the kitten during a drug-hallucination scene sounds awfully familiar.)
★ ★ ½
Directed by Peter Atencio. Written by Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens. Starring Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, Will Forte. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 100 minutes. R (violence, language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.