FIVE KEANU REEVES PERFORMANCES WHICH ARE GENUINELY GOOD
Keanu Reeves gets way more shit than he deserves, mostly because his acting talents tend to fall within a very specific subset, which he is called upon to exceed with depressing regularity. An early turn in Desperate Liaisons convinced a lot of producers that he was fodder for costume drama – which led to terrible appearances in Much Ado About Nothing and A Walk In The Clouds and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Perfectly serviceable action roles in Speed and Point Break convinced Hollywood he was the next big action star, which led to Chain Reaction, the less said about which the better. And The Matrix convinced everybody that he was a genre actor, which led to The Gift and Constantine.
But here’s the thing: Keanu Reeves is honestly not that bad an actor. People use him as a punchline but ignore the fact that when he gets to use his particular mannerisms to his advantage, he’s excellent at fitting himself within a movie. So what if it’s not the method – he’s good at what he does, and he just gets misused a hell of a lot. In short, he’s your classic character actor, except everybody thinks he’s a leading man.
(Plus, as a sidenote: I know from people who would know that Reeves is that rarest of creatures – the Hollywood actor who genuinely doesn’t have an egotistical swelling about his job. Unlike a lot of actors, who claim humility from the driver’s seat of their Porsches, Reeves lives a fairly nomadic, non-materialistic lifestyle, is well-known for being extremely generous to the crew members he works with, and the general belief from everybody who has worked with him is that if tomorrow, you told him he could no longer be an actor, he would shrug, go open up a surf shop somewhere, and be entirely content. And that, let us be honest, is awesome.)
So here are five Reeves roles, all of them good and enhancing the quality of the movies he’s in, all of them well-done, in no particular order.
1.) and 2.) Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey
Maybe these are gimmes, but the two Bill and Ted flicks are both simply fantastic fun, with Reeves and Alex Winter driving them with strangely intense idiot slacker energy. They don’t put on airs about the obvious limitations of their characters, and if you think this is easy, consider Jack Black or Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller or Owen Wilson doing the same movie. You wouldn’t be able to pause for breath without having it made perfectly clear to you that Bill and Ted were worthless numbskulls, possibly having it punctuated with a loud shout of “I AM PAINFULLY STUPID!”
But Bill and Ted aren’t stupid per se; they’re naive and ignorant, but goodhearted, innocent, inventive and quick to adapt to their circumstances. (One of the best bits in Bogus Journey is when they have a time-travel battle with the villain without ever lifting a finger, then figure out how to achieve their demanded glorious destiny not five minutes later.) It takes a lot of nuance to convey that, nuance a lot of top-billing comedic actors couldn’t or wouldn’t manage. But Reeves (and Alex Winter, of course) manage it easily.
(And for the record, although everybody loves Excellent Adventure, Bogus Journey is by far the superior of the two films: more ambitious in plot, character growth, scope and existential humour. Come on, they compliment God on the creation of the universe! And they wedgie Death!)
3.) My Own Private Idaho
Sure, it’s River Phoenix’s movie. But My Own Private Idaho can be analogized very accurately to Scent of a Woman, where Al Pacino might be grabbing the screen and demanding your attention, but it takes Chris O’Donnell (in one of the truly under-recognized performances in film history, I might add) to keep up with him, line for line, doing the immensely difficult task of not being thrust into the background by Pacino’s violent mastication of any and all scenery while playing a much less melodramatic character. In Idaho, Reeves has the O’Donnell job; Phoenix gets all the showy lines, but it’s Reeves’ burnout rent boy that brings balance to the picture as the object of Phoenix’s affection, the necessary enigma to Phoenix’s laser-targeted misguided direction.
4.) A Scanner Darkly
Keanu Reeves is at his best when his character doesn’t quite know what’s going on, which is problematic because his leading-man looks directly conflict with that type of role. Here, however, in this very solid Philip K. Dick adaptation, Reeves’ gradual collapse into a permanent, near-totally-brain-damaged state perfectly mirrors his skill set (go ahead, make your own joke here, you’ve been patient); as his confusion and paranoia mounts, Reeves’s portrayal of man simply trying to remember what the right thing is so he can do it gets more poignant with every viewing. So what if it’s rotoscoped? You can still get all the nuances out of the performance.
I know, I know, everybody was expecting me to wind up with The Matrix, and that’s fair because Reeves’ work as Neo is honestly really good, and carries the picture (although not, so much, its sequels). But this old Ron Howard family comedy is another good example of Reeves playing a good-natured confused dude. His Tod (one “d”) explodes into Dianne Wiest’s family against all her furious denial, but ends up being the male role model her son needs and eventually a dependable member of the family. (The scene where Tod explains to the mother how he dealt with her son’s discovery of masturbation is both pricelessly funny and stupidly adorable.)