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Keanu Reeves: Wooden wonder boy

Great bone structure and Teflon status in Hollywood has done wonders for his career. By Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting
/ Source: contributor

Keanu Reeves leads the Hollywood version of a charmed life. Despite what might charitably be called “limitations” as an actor, he lands plum roles in everything from indie movies to Shakespearean film adaptations to big-budget action flicks. He recently turned 40, but he’s still beautiful enough to snag romantic-comedy leads. The last two movies in the “Matrix” series didn’t do well, but that didn’t stick to Keanu; he’s got three movies coming out this year and two more next year, including a Spike Lee joint.

What’s Keanu’s secret? Has he earned enough capital in Tinseltown with past hits like “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Speed” that he’ll keep getting good parts forever — or at least as long as he’s still pretty? Or will the bombs — and his, er, “lo-fi” approach to acting —eventually catch up with him?

Sarah D. Bunting
I think that, as long as that bone structure holds up, Keanu can keep earning a high-profile living as an actor. Well, perhaps “actor” is not the right word – “placeholder,” perhaps? “Reciter of dialogue”? “Warm body”? Not to harsh on him unduly here, because I don’t think he’s ever claimed to be a master thespian, but...I think he only got the Scott Favor role in “My Own Private Idaho” because an actual log turned it down.

But it doesn’t matter. I have watched “Point Break” more times than I would like to admit — on basic cable, mind you, with all the swear words replaced by silly dubbed euphemisms, and in spite of my physical aversion to Lori Petty — because of Keanu. Shirtless, wet Keanu.

He is not a good actor. He is not, it would seem, a good picker of scripts, either, because “Constantine” looks Constan-terrible. But if it hasn’t hurt him in almost 20 years in the business, I don’t think it’s going to start now.

Tara Ariano
Oh my God, “Constantine.” Okay, granted, I don’t read the comics, so it’s not like I was coming at that trailer all steeped in the canon. But that was some incomprehensible BS.

Here’s a question, though: has he ever had a “good part”? Ted in the “Bill & Ted” movies, I will grant you; he’s a sweet stoner, and Reeves plays him like a big floppy-eared puppy, endearingly. That may even be the only time I can recall him seeming engaged in a role. But for all the success of “Speed” and at least the first “Matrix” movie, any other attractive male movie star could have filled those slots — Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Matt Damon…I mean, it’s a long list. Reeves movies — both the hits and the bombs — just strike me as being so generic, and he’s generic in them; he seems to bring so little personality or inner life to his performances that he’s boring to watch. Especially post-“Matrix,” all he does is furrow his brow and glare. Imagining him in the ensemble of, say, an “Ocean’s Eleven” is impossible because he seems to have no sense of humor or playfulness.

It’s not that I think he’ll ever make a flop big enough to end his career; you’re right to say he’ll keep rolling along just as he has been. But John Travolta’s worked pretty steadily since “Pulp Fiction,” too, and that doesn’t mean he’s done anything I care to see.

I wonder if maybe that generic quality — “genericness”? “genericity”? — is what allows Keanu to enjoy such Teflon-esque success. I agree with you that he’s an acting flatline, but he’s always an acting flatline, so maybe that consistency works in his favor somehow.

I mean, a “performance” like the one he gave in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” would have gotten any other actor pushed out to sea on an ice floe, but somehow he went straight from that tour de wood into a Kenneth Branagh production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” How? Because it’s pretty much impossible to give the man an unflattering haircut? Or because the casting director knows exactly what she’s going to get, even if what she gets is “hilariously stiff”?

That’s the key, for me. I went to see “The Replacements” in the theater (…I know, I know) because he’s hotter than the sun, but Keanu’s acting made it worth the price of admission. See, I don’t think he’s boring to watch at all; I think he’s hysterically funny. Exhibit A: “The Devil’s Advocate.” Watching Keanu try so hard to “react” that he practically pops a hernia while Al Pacino is merrily snacking on every piece of scenery on the set? Good times.

“Constantine” is going feature a number of portentously doom-y lines that Keanu has nothing resembling the thespian resources to deliver believably. Instant drinking game — just add Sarah. I kind of can’t wait.

Really? You think Reeves is so hilariously bad that it’s worth seeking him out in order to crack on him? I wouldn’t even go that far; I think he’s bad in a boring way — less Ed Wood than…I don’t know, Garry Marshall.

Actually, not even: he makes me sad, a little. You see, Reeves seems to be a decent guy in his day-to-day life; I actually read in “Entertainment Weekly” this morning that he didn’t pick up one bit of swag when he was at Sundance, because (according to a handler) that isn’t his thing. He has also often given up part of his own movie salary, either to give it to another actor the production couldn’t afford otherwise (as he did with both Pacino on “Advocate” and with Gene Hackman on “Replacements”), or to crew members (as he did on “The Matrix”). I mean, he’s a good person – a much better person than I would be if I were hugely famous and fabulously rich. And in his movies…he just tries so hard. But he still sucks. It actually kind of breaks my heart.

But, you know. He’s gorgeous. So if he were also amazingly talented, we’d have to hate him. This way, we can appreciate him in still photographs, and also pity him a tiny bit.

Aw…now I kind of feel bad for using all those synonyms for “wooden.”

I said “kind of.”

I don’t know that I’d seek out Keanu’s constipated brand of thespionics if he looked like, say, Jackie Mason – but that’s why I can’t feel too sorry for him. He’s probably the best-looking man alive, and he’s well compensated for his efforts; he’s gotten a long way on not much talent, but one thing he is good at is making me giggle through swill like “Sweet November.” It’s probably a stretch to call that an actual skill, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting are co-creators and co-editors of