Dude, Where's Your Integrity?
Actually, Keanu Reeves is getting his back
by Jami Bernard
Our little Keanu is all grown up, and the possibilities, if not endless, are at least expanded.
I met Keanu Reeves 15 years ago when he was beginning his career in "River's Edge," playing a youth so disaffected that the death of a friend doesn't seem to trouble him. He was 22 years old but seemed a lot younger, bouncing around like a puppy, saying whatever popped into his head without the socializing benefits of synapse delay.
Tim Hunter, the "River's Edge" director, accompanied Reeves at the time, perhaps to make sure he didn't hurt himself. Hunter said that Keanu's biggest problem was keeping still. Since then, Reeves has had a career as a teen idol and is a source of unfathomable mystery. But it has been difficult to take him seriously as an actor since he seems more like an adorable prop. That, I predict, is about to change.
The turning point was so recent that it's still happening. In Sam Raimi's "The Gift," which opened last month, Reeves has a bit part in which he is chillingly believable as an abusive redneck husband. There is nothing "Bill & Ted" about this performance.
For years, no one expected anything but Bill & Ted from Reeves. No one thought that this actor - whose Hawaiian first name means "cool breeze over the mountains" - could be anything other than an easygoing, loping surfer dude.
That existential dude-ness was apparent even during his two brushes with Shakespeare in "My Own Private Idaho" (with its update on the Falstaff-Prince Hal story) and "Much Ado About Nothing." It continued despite his being bulked up for action-hero duty in "Speed," which interested him so little he blew off the sequel.
The success of "The Matrix" and the failure of "The Watcher" have little to do with the new improved Keanu. The key is that he is clearly comfortable in character roles, which is where he belongs (at least for now) and where he would have been all this time if not for his Bambi-sweet looks. In fact, Reeves had expected to have a small role in "The Watcher" and was rightfully annoyed when his character evolved into the movie's selling point.
Currently, he is exhibiting a newfound gravity that seems hard-won, and therefore genuine. No more crashing off the walls from too much sugar. So now is the time for Reeves to do what Bruce Willis did so successfully - take a backseat in his movies so he can breathe out of range of fan expectations.
Reeves has already learned how to do that with his rock band, Dogstar. At a Dogstar performance in a dinky casino outside Las Vegas last November, Reeves performed with less comment than Silent Bob. He occasionally acknowledged the star-struck turnout, but mostly kept to his music, graciously ceding the stage to the lead singer, who is cute, but no Keanu.
Fifteen years ago, the refreshingly unguarded kid said his goal was to take "deportment lessons" and someday become "a Cary Grant dude." He had his chance in the recent critical bomb "Sweet November," in which he plays a romantic lead who learns humanity through loss.
Reeves attacked his character with professional single-mindedness, and if the movie did not soar on screwball comedy's wings, it's because it was a lead balloon to begin with. "Sweet November" is an aberration. "The Gift" is a blessing.
No one feels sorry for a millionaire, even one who seems indifferent to fame and fortune, but it's clear that Reeves has finally received his deportment lessons from the school of hard knocks. His new maturity is most becoming. Excellent!