For Keanu Reeves, Angst and Adventure
By Hans Kellner
In Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, He's A Real Wacky Dude. But He Also Has A Serious Side. What He'd Really Like To Do Is ... Shakespeare.
Is Keanu Reeves going to get another movie he deserves anytime soon?
It's been two years since Reeves was first profiled in Interview magazine, just one of a portfolio of rising stars that included Johnny Depp, Rupert Graves and Rob Camilletti (credited solely as "best friend of Cher").
Riding a wave of deserved praise for his portrayal of a pot-smoking delinquent in River's Edge, Reeves had proved a remarkable ability to move beyond type and find the ambiguities in a seemingly stock character.
Next to a fittingly moody photo, the then 22-year-old Reeves let loose with an off-the-wall stream of consciousness: "You know my favorite role? Mercutio -- you know, in Romeo and Juliet -- 'cause he's so full of passion and wisdom and anger. I don't know. I just live out here in L.A., man. Been out here two years from Toronto. L.A.'s a twisted place. It's a varied animal. I guess it's like free ways. Get it? Two words. I don't know. Nothing's for free, huh?"
Not stardom, anyway. This week, Reeves is doing time in the video release of Stephen Herek's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, a shamelessly moronic comedy about two Valley guys who hurtle across time in a phone booth on the eve of their big history final. Along the way, they encounter Socrates ("Excellent!"), Sigmund Freud ("How's it goin', Frude-dude?"), a Wild West brothel ("Historical babes!") and a company of other historical celebrities who eventually pile into the booth and head back to Southern California.
Sold with an ad campaign that featured mock endorsements from Abe Lincoln ("The most fun I've had in a theater in years!") and Joan of Arc ("Totally HOT!" -- Teen Martyr magazine), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure reveled -- make that wallowed -- in its own brash silliness. But Orion Pictures had the last laugh: Excellent Adventure, made in 1987 and originally destined for video, was released in theaters in February and went on to earn nearly $40 million as the first sleeper hit of the year.
Bill and Ted are the most outstanding dudes, but they're a little short on passion, wisdom and anger. And although Reeves' giddy enthusiasm provides some genuinely funny moments, mostly he flounders. Stuck with a lame script and no apparent direction, he's throwing great stuff into the void, playing with type instead of against it.
The same could be said of Reeves' appearance as an irresponsible newlywed in Ron Howard's mawkish Parenthood, now warming hearts in theaters everywhere. Like most of his co-stars, he's very funny. He's also coasting.
Why is Keanu Reeves wasting his time with these shallow characters and half-witted movies?
Only River's Edge, Tim Hunter's harrowing portrait of teen alienation, and Marisa Silver's Permanent Record, a little-seen film about adolescent suicide, have tapped the best of Reeves' extraordinary talent, demanding that he push beyond cliche toward an emotional complexity untouched by most young actors.
An extremely honest, sometimes almost reckless, actor, Reeves said it all last year when he told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm a visceral experience."
In River's Edge, Permanent Record and even in the otherwise best-forgotten The Prince of Pennsylvania, Reeves rides his emotional peaks with the unaffected abandon of a high school amateur, then reins them in with an assurance that saves them from spilling over the top. At his best, Reeves gives the kind of natural, go-for-broke performances we wish we had given in the senior play.
But when it comes to comedy, Reeves' approach is broad -- sometimes too broad. He's like a wide-eyed vaudevillian, pushing his own limits with a kind of dazed wonder, his long limbs bobbing like a marionette on a sugar high. As Bill and Ted shoot across time, Reeves can't stop grinning.
Born in Beirut and raised in Toronto, Reeves got his first name from his father's heritage -- Keanu is Hawaiian for "breeze over the mountains." He began acting when he was 14, later dropping out of high school after repeating his senior year -- "I even flunked gym," he told Rolling Stone. He found steady work on Canadian TV until his move to Los Angeles four years ago.
"I wanted to be in the Shaw or Stratford Shakespeare festivals, but they turned me down twice," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I didn't fit. I was too young and unruly by their standards. So I packed up my Volvo and headed for Hollywood in search of steak-and-potatoes roles."
Reeves' first theatrical film, River's Edge, provided him with a twofold challenge: to play a moral character in an essentially amoral story, and to fit comfortably among his co-stars without seeming an obvious -- and out of place -- good guy.
Reeves plays Matt, a laid-back, perpetually stoned teenager whose loyalties are tested when one of his buddies strangles his girlfriend and leaves her, naked, by the river's edge. Reeves captures Matt's confusion beautifully, refusing to play him as either saint or scoundrel. Instead, he gets inside Matt's skin and comes up a genuine hero, warts and all.
Likewise, Permanent Record cast Reeves as Chris, an ebullient high school student coming to terms with the suicide of his best friend, David. Reeves lets Chris' tension build slowly, his party-guy exterior gradually eclipsed by despair. When his desolation finally gives way todrunken grief and rage, Reeves reaches deep inside for a crying scene that has the force of a cyclone.
Speeding down the street, Chris nearly swerves into David's surviving brother. Slamming on the brakes, Reeves throws himself out of the car and into the arms of David's horrified father, screaming over and over, "I should have known, I'm sorry, I should have known, I'm sorry." It is a brave moment.
In this scene, Reeves approaches acting in the same reckless way he rides his motorcycle. "I used to ride through the woods near Pittsburgh at night with the lights off, with maybe two other people on the back, and we'd tell each other what we saw. It was very cool," he told Rolling Stone.
Not surprising, perhaps, was Reeves' difficulty in finding his voice in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, last year's dazzling costume drama of sexual deceit. In a small, underdeveloped role, Reeves played Chevalier Danceny, a young 18th-century French nobleman caught up in the treacherous games of Glenn Close and John Malkovich.
"My first scene in Dangerous Liaisons is where Glenn Close looks up and I'm watching this opera and I'm crying," Reeves told Rolling Stone. "What a nightmare that was. It was like six hours of trying to cry. Stephen Frears came up to me and said, 'Can't you think of your mother being dead or something? You're a Method actor. Isn't there something you can do?'
"I don't cry much in real life," Reeves said. "But I kind of like to suffer. People don't respect artists who don't suffer."
He's suffered enough -- mostly from bad scripts. In Ron Nysander's muddled comedy The Prince of Pennsylvania, Reeves was cast as yet another teen, Rupert Marshetta, who holds his father for ransom so he can run away with a local hippie played by Amy Madigan. Nysander's comedy is as bleak as the Western Pennsylvania landscape; only in Reeves' fits of adolescent energy does the movie spring to life.
And in Thom Eberhardt's teen comedy The Night Before, Reeves was wasted as a high school nerd trying to recall an evening of high jinks with a policeman's daughter.
Like John Cusack (Say Anything, Eight Men Out) and Christian Slater (Heathers), Reeves has specialized in playing teenagers with an edge, outlaws just outside the establishment. It's a good gig, but it's one with a limited shelf life, especially for an actor creeping up on 25. (Remember Matt Dillon?)
Reeves' next project is I Love You to Death, the believe-it-or-not love story of Frances and Tony Toto of Allentown. Reeves will play one of the hit men Frances hired to shoot her husband during seven attempts to kill him in 1983 -- for which she has been forgiven. The film, directed by Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill), stars Kevin Kline and Tracey Ullman as the Totos. It's due to be released early next year.
The choice sounds like a step in the right direction. If Reeves can resist the urge to coast on his devilish charm and adolescent angst, and, instead, bring his excellent instincts to better scripts, he can probably do anything.
Keanu Reeves as Mercutio? Now that would be a varied animal.