Six weeks before its release date, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s feature-film debut Keanu got a very late-night audience screening at SXSW’s Paramount Theater as a work-in-progress. The sleepy crowd seemed — somewhat like the film itself — to lose some steam after a killer start. For the most part, Keanu is hilarious and packed with quotable lines. But judging from the audience reaction, it’s not quite there yet.
The laughter — and “awws” — were continuous during the first half of the film, which sees the comedy duo playing cousins who descend into the seedy underbelly of L.A. gangland when the kitten owned by Peele’s character is kidnapped by a notorious gangster. But the giddy atmosphere noticeably deflated as the film entered the somewhat darker, and slower, second half as even those “awws” greeting the film’s titular kitten grew fewer and further between.
I’m betting that reaction had as much to do with the extreme lateness of the hour — the screening didn’t start until after 12:45 AM and thanks to Daylight Savings Time beginning tonight, it ended after 3:30 AM — as with any pacing problems. I wasn’t the only one fighting exhaustion by the end. But as Key and Peele, and Keanu director Peter Atencio took pains to remind everyone as they introduced it, it’s unfinished and more changes may be inbound.
The good news for them is that Keanu still largely killed — unsurprising since it lands, even at its weakest moments, like an extended episode of the duo’s dearly departed Comedy Central series Key & Peele. And whatever steam was let out of the room during the second half, the audience was won over again by the end, especially after a reveal during the closing credits involving a certain popular British actor (which may or may not have been a joke).The highlights include an action-packed open set to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, an absolutely crazy scene with Anna Faris that I won’t spoil, and the constant presence of the music of George Michael hinted at during the film’s first trailer. And it didn’t hurt that the two stars pumped up the room by flinging stuffed kittens into the audience just before the film started. Even so, there were plenty of moments that dragged, especially ones with the duo riffing that could stand to be tightened considerably.
The screening ended without any follow up Q&A. Coming out of the screening I couldn’t help but think Keanu is a 4 or 5 minute trim from getting the pacing just right. We’ll find out when it hits wide release April 29.