THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING KEANU
by Matthew Gilbert
Keanu Reeves, currently starring in "A Walk in the Clouds," may be the edgiest actor in the movies today. He draws you anxiously forward in your seat, hoping . . . praying . . . he'll simply remember his lines.
All right, so Keanu Reeves may also be the easiest target in movies today. As an actor, the 30-year-old recovering dude is unnatural in nearly every role he plays these days. Reviewers are consistent in their use of words like ''wooden," "stiff" and "affectless" to describe his on-screen style, or unstyle. Even the simplest, incidental lines in "A Walk in the Clouds" -- filler like "Here, let me help," or "It's delicious" -- are like cotton in his mouth. It's hard to imagine a more robotic performer -- though when he played a robotic information carrier in "Johnny Mnemonic" he was remarkably ineffective. With his eyes dulled and wide, he's always a beat behind, on slo-mo, floating through the abyss for a second before delivering his next line or reaction.
The awkwardness of Reeves' delivery is only highlighted when he's required to give a "big speech." In "Johnny Mnemonic," it was his Shakespearean "I want room service" plea in the middle of the futuristic shambles of Newark. In "A Walk in the Clouds," he has the honor of telling the father of the woman he loves "I would die for what you have," which culminates in the "Can't you see how special she is" moment featured so prominently in the movie's ad campaign. He generates as much drama and authenticity as MTV news anchor Tabitha Soren, a missing-in-action quality that looks more extreme when he's in the company of heavy-duty actors like Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins in "Bram Stoker's Dracula," or Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," or River Phoenix in "My Own Private Idaho."
Is there an aura of cynicism about the speedy rise of Reeves' Hollywood career? Before "Speed," of course, he was anything but a sensation with casting directors and producers, and he could not ask $7 million per picture. ''Speed" was his breakthrough, even though it was the action effects and the high concept, and not really his performance, that made the movie a huge hit. His performance was energetic but typically vacant, lacking in the artful action-styled persona cultivated by people like Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis, who make it look easy to mutter those lines that also serve as advertising slogans, like "Make my day" or "I'll be back." Reeves happened to be in the right movie at the right time, but now it's as if everyone went to see "Speed" to see him.
"A Walk in the Clouds" is an attempt to broaden Reeves' audience after ''Speed," to do for him what "Legends of the Fall" did for Brad Pitt. With his pretty face, he is being pressed into a romantic-hero mold. It's Hollywood logic at its most simplistic and artless, and it makes Reeves look like a doll being gussied up to match his surroundings. Ken goes to the slopes. Ken hits the beach. Ken's in love. Ooops -- Ken's back on the bus. Grit your teeth, Ken . . .
Somehow it seems odd that Keanu Reeves is receiving the full star treatment, iconic Vanity Fair cover included. While Brad Pitt is no Olivier -- would "Legends of the Fall" have been a solid box-office success without his miraculous hair? -- he is able to connect to his roles with some immediacy. In ''Kalifornia" and in "Thelma & Louise," he had charismatic and even star-making moments. And while Winona Ryder is still learning how to work the power of the big screen, her performances have had naturalism and charm in movies like "Heathers," "Mermaids" and "Little Women." (In "Bram Stoker's Dracula," however, she was almost as bad as Reeves, gushing, "Take me away from all this death" as if she were crazy with a case of poison ivy.) Often, Johnny Depp endows his performances with a distance similar to Reeves', but Depp does it intentionally. As his persona expands over the years, self-consciousness has become a part of his appeal.
During the course of his career, Reeves has had moments of grace, especially early on, and he has appeared in films in which he is used well by a particular moviemaker. In 1987's "River's Edge," his first important role, he was touching in a very grim scenario. That was before he began trying to act. In "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey," he might have been at a disadvantage if he were a more resourceful actor. The thickness of his character is best conveyed by a hazy response to lines and an ability to play air guitar. In his few scenes in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," his overly honest attempt to be villainous was given a comic veneer by director Branagh, in keeping with the lightness of the rest of the film.
For reasons other than acting, Keanu Reeves is a huge, top-paid actor right now. What he actually has to offer is invisible.