In its own way, Keanu is a miraculous little picture. It is a comedy - an American studio comedy - that is driven by its plot and not by the material the stars produced while riffing on set. Possibly as a result of exactly that thing, it has a running time, with end credits and all, the comes in short of 100 minutes. Which is impressive enough. But then we add in that it is intelligent and funny, simultaneously - and not just intelligent, but sharply and fixedly satirical, with a clear-headed perspective on contemporary social relationships that already traffics in material that movies try the level best to avoid completely; but it is aware of the solemn duty of comedies, that they never allow anything to get in the way of the humor, so it carefully layers its social commentary right below the jokes, where you only have to grapple with it if you want to. So it's imperfect; lots of movies are imperfect. But most movies are not special and singular in the ways that Keanu is. God knows most comedies aren't nearly as funny, and that's pretty much all it takes by itself.

The film is, at heart, about the psychotic things that cat lovers do. Right from the start, we see glimmers of this: somewhere in a dank part of Los Angeles, a pair of glowering, semi-demonic black-cloaked assassins (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the latter of whom co-wrote the script with Alex Rubens) execute all the gang members working a drug warehouse, ending with the boss King Diaz (Ian Casselberry). They are, however, thrown briefly by the presence of Diaz's unbearably adorable tabby kitten Iglesias, petting and kissing the small animal while Diaz optimistically supposes this means that he is to be spared. He's not; Iglesias escapes in the chaos that ensues, and races across L.A. to the soaring accompaniment of chorale music. Two thoughts had by this point presented themselves to me: one was that the opening is pretty nasty and dark for the first scene of a comedy, even as over-the-top parody. The other was that all things are forgiven in the presence of a kitten scampering down the Los Angeles River with classical music playing him on his way. All things. I will confess at this point that Keanu unquestionably works better if you are a cat person, and I cannot speak to what it might do for those wretched, black-hearted souls who are not.

Anyway, Iglesias ends up on the doorstep of a certain Rell (Peele), who has just been dumped by his girlfriend, and who responds with appropriate obsession to the mewling fuzzball that has sought him out light a sign from God. That is, he takes photos of the kitten - renamed "Keanu", after the Hawai'ian word for a cool breeze, and also after the blank-faced star of The Matrix - in a series of movie-inspired tableaux to serve as a 12-month calendar for friends and family. Rell's cousin Clarence (Key) is a little put off by this at first, but soon melts, as anyone would (seriously, the litany of kittens they got to play Keanu are the sonofabitching cutest imaginable), and so it is that both men respond with outrage and horror when they return from a movie that night to find that Rell's house has been broken into and Keanu has been stolen.

The rest of the movie finds Rell and Clarence making a plunge into the heart of darkness, as they discover that Keanu is in the hands of a druglord named Cheddar (Method Man), and have to pose as the Allentown Boys - the same assassins from the first scene - in order to get close enough to snatch the kitty back. The surface-level comedy is that both men are boring, vanilla middle-class types - Rell is a pop culture nerd, Clarence is so uptight that it's starting to cause problems with his wife (Nia Long), they bond over Liam Neeson movies - and they are very, very bad at pretending to be ultra-violent gangsters, but just barely good enough to keep inveigling themselves more and more in the madly dangerous world they've stumbled into. The barely-deeper-than-surface-level satire is, of course, that Rell and Clarence are both African-Americans, as are virtually all of the characters in the film of any significance (though Will Forte puts in a wonderful small performance), but everything about them reads as white. And not just white, but like, painfully awkward, boring white: Clarence's most defining attribute is that he's a George Michael fan, and Rell's taste in cinema is that of every skinny college freshman who was the only person in some Minneapolis suburb who liked Kubrick and thinks it makes him edgy.

Basically, Keanu is a frank (but not terribly aggressive) attempt to reckon with the complexity of race in America: that there is not merely a Black America and White America, but Respectable Black America and Poor Black America (of course the same intra-racial division is found among white folks, but pop culture has generally been much better about recognising that it exists, at least, even if it's not with a terribly high degree of sophistication). I'm not really in a position to say if it does this particularly well; what I think can be said is that it's probably not as good as any given episode of the stars' late sketch comedy TV show, Key and Peele, which had its share of little acid bombs on the same topic, presented with much more focus than the movie can provide. Still, for a movie to grapple with that kind of thing at all is rare enough that it's worth some attention.

As I mentioned, though, the film's not primarily concerned with being a social studies lesson. To its absolute credit; nothing kills comedy faster or more thoroughly than hand-wringing earnestness, and such earnestness as Keanu provides is mostly part of Clarence's litany of liabilities in terms of surviving as a pretend murderer. No, the social aspect silently powers Keanu, but mostly, the film is dedicated to letting Key and Peele demonstrate their admirable comic timing and chemistry - it's almost impossible to think of another American comedy duo the 2000s have produced that's nearly as good (for that matter, it's hard to think of any comedy duo worthy of the name in contemporary pop culture) - for the first time in a cinematic setting. And as far as that goes, it works: Keanu is frequently great, using the ancient comic trope of the nervous outsider in a dangerous spot to good effect by virtue of having to top-shelf talents working through jokes that are rarely fresh, but have the force of the duo's commitment to sell them. Besides, it can always retrench to showcasing it's devastatingly sweet kitten, at one point sporting a do-rag and gold chain in what will surely go down as 2016's most violently adorable image.

That all being said, Keanu absolutely feels like the work of tremendously talented sketch comedy veterans giving a feature-length screenplay a test-drive (this particularly includes Key and Peele veteran Peter Atencio's directing, which is maddeningly free of urgency). Even with its thankfully un-bloated running time, the film is perhaps too long: there aren't that many different jokes to be mined from scenario, and most of the film is an exercise in seeing the same handful of ideas (men with high-pitched voices adopting bass growls and taking unsavory delight in saying the N-word; the same men freaking out at the thought of violence; Clarence convincing a bunch of tough criminals that George Michael is an important part of black culture) worked out in different iterations. I wouldn't say it wears out its welcome, but it ceases to be surprising very early on. Not everything plays: Anna Faris's tremendously unselfish cameo as a drugged-out lunatic version of herself sounds good on paper but drags on, and the film starts to become too much of an action film (which it is never very good at being) as it enters its final quarter.

All of which is very real, and which certainly keeps Keanu from being a complete slam dunk, but what can I say: as old-hat as the jokes got, I was still laughing at them an hour into the movie. Flawless timing and otherworldly chemistry can paper over a lot sins in a comedy, and Key and Peele have both of those qualities to spare, and even when Keanu objectively doesn't "work", it still works. Besides, and I cannot over-emphasis this enough: kitty!