The New York Times (US), August 11, 2011

The Good, the Bad, Not the Ugly

Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, the co-chief film critics of The New York Times, answer your questions in a monthly column that appears in print and online. Here they take on questions about actors and stars. You can write them at

(snipped for Keanu content)

Q. Is Keanu Reeves a Good Bad Actor or a Bad Good Actor? - ROBERT SCHROKO

DARGIS Who cares? He’s Keanu Reeves, dude, and an excellent movie star, blessed with a beautiful blank quality that lends itself to our projections and helps explain why he’s been a go-to savior, including in “Johnny Mnemonic,” “Little Buddha,” the “Matrix” trilogy, “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Constantine.”

SCOTT Neither! A good actor, period. One who has appeared in some pretty bad movies, for sure. (But who hasn’t?) Mr. Reeves has deliberately exploited both his exquisite facial bone structure and his gift for gnomic blankness with great success in the movies mentioned above, but in those solemn savior roles he demonstrates not stiffness so much as professionalism. Which he also shows in comic and villainous roles in movies as varied as “The Gift,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” and the hugely influential “Bill and Ted” pictures. If you want definitive proof of Mr. Reeves’s skill, look at Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” (yes, I know, but really!), in particular a scene in the kitchen with Dianne Wiest. He has a piece of business with a carton of milk that has stuck in my head for almost a quarter century as an emblem of precise and subtle screen technique. And the more you look at his performances, the more instances of that kind of skill you notice.


Johnny Mnemonic , Little Buddha , Matrix, The , Devil's Advocate, The , Constantine , Gift, The , Something's Gotta Give , Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure , Parenthood


GuestNot so fast fellas (2011-10-01 23:30:43)
 Neither is closer to true in that Keanu, in spite of all protestations, is not an actor, but a movie star. I know, I know, defend him if you will. It would be interesting to see if he could clock as much mileage and hold his own in a multitude of non-film roles. That's yet to happen. Also, standing around looking good is acting, it's modeling. That's not to say Keanu has no potential, it's just to say that, true to form, it's the thing talked about yet not extant.
Buffalo chips! (2011-10-02 01:45:37)
 There are tons of gorgeous male-model actors in Hollywood, and most of them are waiting tables. Being good looking is not enough to get beyond C-list status at the most. Sure, some actors manage to get reasonably well known for a short while by shamelessly playing up to the tabloid media, but it doesn't last long.

Keanu has been an A-lister for ages, and heaven knows he's not doing much to attract media attention. In Hollywood, where dog eats dog and the film studio execs have an endless list of actors to choose between, Keanu continues to gets cast. That has nothing to do with looking good. That has everything to do with being the kind of actor who puts bums in seats, not just in American movie theatres but all around the world.

GuestHuman all too human (2011-10-04 01:42:17)
 While the above statement is true that Keanu is frequently called when the mission is to get “bums in the seats;” he’s equally omitted for the well-written, mature, heavy-hitting roles. Even Will Ferrell (Everything Must Go) gets a turn at bat. Why not Keanu?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Keanu came into the business very young, and likely unprepared to put up resistance to being sent through the star-maker machinery and confected into the individual known as “Keanu.” Because that’s what he is--a confection (all semantics applied)--the ultimate bum lure. Can’t put the confection at risk, so he doesn’t get to navigate in the real world unfettered and unassisted. As a result, he’s deprived of the very thing he needs to be an actor: comprehension of the human.

He can pretend being human; but even well executed, it still feels like pretense. That’s what the critics sense when they call his work ‘hollow’ or ‘wooden.’ It’s what the inquisitor to the New York Times was baffled by. It’s why Keanu is repeatedly cast in super- and non-human roles. I know, I know, the milk carton scene in Parenthood. Go back and watch Joaquin (Leaf) Phoenix on the phone, unforgettably visceral.

Dog-eating Hollywood doesn’t care. He seats those bums! That‘s enough. Keanu may even be content with that, and the desire to be a good actor just another facet of his confection. But if he’s genuine, then he has no choice but to step up, back up his intentions, and make the singular journey to be fearlessly real. Great acting will follow.

Well... (2011-10-04 04:19:13)
 ...most actors are omitted for the well-written, mature, heavy-hitting roles. Those roles go to a very few, select group of actors. What many of them have in common is that most people don't bother to see their movies.

People don't want the movie equivalent of high art or fine literature. They want entertainment. And they want their regular, well-loved A-listers to play the main roles. That's why quality films from outside the USA get remade with Hollywood actors.

When Hollywood calls Jack Nicholson, it's not because they want him to play some character in a movie. They want him to play Jack Nicholson playing that character. It's the same with most name actors. Most of them are really good at playing themselves playing someone else. And that's what Hollywood wants from A-listers.

If you look at Keanu's career, he's been very versatile. Few actors have been so successful in such a wide array of movies.

What I see as a common thread, much more than super- and non-human roles, is a pattern where his characters are on a journey of self-discovery. The "hollowness" is more a case of his characters being unsure of their future; what path they should choose, or whether they should even start down any path.

Keanu gets more flak as an actor than just about anyone. It's become a standard joke: Keanu and Nicholas Cage are wooden. And Paul Walker, too. And yet -- Keanu still gets called when Hollywood wants those bums in those seats. Funny, that.

(2011-10-05 23:06:17)
 "Keanu is repeatedly cast in super- and non-human roles"

Jack Traven, the not-so-bright cop whose gut instinct saved the day (and the girl, of course)
Jjaks Clayton, whose whole life is a bad joke.
Hardball. Thumbsucker. Constantine- and there's nothing 'super-' about the character. A bit different, yes. But no Captain America.
Alex Wyler of The Lake House. A man learning to grow up emotionally.
Street Kings.

as for ' make the singular journey to be fearlessly real' ... must confess I'm still waiting for that one ;)

?? (2011-10-05 23:32:23)
 "Can’t put the confection at risk, so he doesn’t get to navigate in the real world unfettered and unassisted. As a result, he’s deprived of the very thing he needs to be an actor: comprehension of the human."

HUH ???
help me understand this. please.

Oops (2011-10-06 13:14:56)
 LucaM, I think you meant "Alex Wyler."

But your point is spot-on.

(2011-10-06 14:38:09)
 thanks ; edited. :)
LOL (2011-10-06 14:39:18)
 @BlueGem, I missed that one too. :-)

One of my most common Keanu related mistakes is saying "Speed King" (old Deep Purple hit) instead of "Street Kings". :-) I usually get his character's names OK, though. That is, those who I remember at all. I must shamefacedly admit that my memory fails completely when it comes to about half of them. (blush)

Anakin McFly
(2011-10-06 16:01:55)

@LucaM They're saying that Keanu is a delicate creation of the Hollywood industry, and as such they protect him from encountering the real world, which would give him real life experience but also corrupt him and spoil the movie star they've spent so much effort in perfecting.

...which is kind of offensive given the amount of and kind of experiences Keanu has gone through in his life; with perspective they might not be more than that of the average human, but neither are they drastically less.

(2011-10-06 17:30:47)
 Ani - I got that ;) but I have my reason/s for asking ;)
curious if 'Guest' will bother answering ;)
Smells fishy (2011-10-07 01:48:05)
 Methinks we have had a visit from a Supersac Fish (a.k.a. Trollfish), masquerading as a Reasonable Fish. Let's just hope it doesn't spawn here.
GuestFish spawn=caviar-in some quarters (2011-10-07 02:31:24)
 Actually, there are those of us who do want the cinematic equivalent of high art and fine literature. Thankfully, there are foreign films. There are also filmmakers in the U.S. who work toward producing a quality product. These I gladly support.

I will say this: I enjoyed Keanu in “Thumbsucker.” He looked like he was having fun. Good for him. That could possibly be one of my favorites. “Lake House” had some good moments; it was the remake of a Korean film. “Scanner Darkly” turned out well, too. I loved the book, and was happy the movie brought much of what counted from it to the screen. This will probably sound supremely strange, but I though Keanu hit his mark as David Alan Griffith, “The Watcher.” That scene between Keanu and James Spader at the cemetery, that’s spot-on funnier than hell, and may be what makes that performance creepy in the way it should be. Irony of it, the apocryphal story is that Keanu supposedly didn’t give a hoot--he did the part as a favor.

Look, you guys, Keanu is the one going around saying that he wants to be a good/great actor. As for “fearlessly real,” see if you can get your heads around this: “fearless” is the guy with his nads on the line; the guy who doesn’t need “600 takes,” because he’s going to get it right on the first one. Don’t say that no one does: Director John Frankenheimer’s “Manchurian Candidate” is a film that the director himself said he left technical mistakes in because he was working with a group of actors who consistently got it right on the first take and he could not bring himself to ask that they do it again.

“Real” is the actor who would never allow his character to do something that a human being wouldn’t do in whatever situation the character finds himself in. When you see a great actor at work, that’s what you’re looking at--someone realizing that no matter what, the thing to do is actually the human thing. An example of this is Debra Winger in “Rachel Getting Married.” Not a big role, but she’s a real as it gets in the mother/daughter confrontation. For you fellas, check out Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

As for fama impedimenta, Robert DeNiro once said in a interview that one of the downfalls of being famous is that [fame] got in the way of his being able to move about in the world freely and make the kinds of observations about humanity that many actors incorporate when navigating a character. Call me crazy, but if DeNiro feels encumbered by fame, what must it be like for someone who is considered a “god in Japan?”

Nicholson being Nicholson being [fill in the blank]. Here’s an actor to ponder: Daffy Duck. No, really, don’t laugh. Daffy Duck was always Daffy Duck being [fill in the blank]. Check him out in “Drip-along Daffy,” Warner’s send-up of “High Noon.” And there is nothing like Daffy Duck when he scats “Little Red Riding Hood.” What this means (and what you’ll see if you get a chance to see Daffy Duck) is that the consummate actor is a vehicle for the character. Not so much “bringing something” to the performance like a date or a valise, but being there--through and through. The mug of coffee: which do you notice? Both. What is the experience? Having had coffee (not having had a mouth full of ceramics--hopefully).

While you may have other questions and observations on my comments, I have one for the lot of you: If you are all fans of Keanu’s, wouldn’t you want him to be the very best performer that he could possibly be? Wouldn’t you want for him to acquire what he aspires to? Why not back him up when he says he wants to better work and say “Yeah, man, we’ll go see you in better work!” I think if the industry saw that the fan base required the best of Keanu--that the “bums in the seats” are not just a bunch of bums--they may give him a go at the quality roles.

I don’t know if this addresses all of your thoughts. I may not be able to do it; not even be actually inclined to. Thanks for having me as a guest.

"Caviar"...? (2011-10-07 04:48:09)
 Wow. "Caviar" is what Guest likens him-/herself to. As if to elevate him-/herself as a fish of supreme exclusiveness, high above the lowly species of fish that we here at WINM have catalogued.

I've long been wondering what species of fish these commentators really are. Are they a general type of forever-alone-fish that swim around from one fansite to another, sharing their oh so exquisite and self-elevated opinions of a number of actors, in the hope that the silly fangirls will be impressed and awed by their eloquence? Or are they simply Masochistic Fish, hating the fact that they can't stop themselves from being Keanu fans, much to their own dismay (because they would rather think of themselves as movie connoisseurs who are above being fans of such a "limited" actor)?

Whatever species Guest belongs to, I find his/her condescending tone and patronizing demonstration of superiority to be too annoying for me to care what he/she thinks about Keanu or any other actor.

Guest, seeing as how you're such a lover of the cinematic equivalent of high art and fine literature, I suggest you relocate yourself to the fanboards of actors that you find to be deserving of your praise, and leave us silly fangirls to continue appreciating an actor that you think is way too inferior to deserve your admiration.

TL;DR - if you don't like the actor who this fansite is dedicated to, the door is that way ------>

in other quarters, caviar is said to be best when consumed in small doses (2011-10-07 05:35:56)
 wow. that was instructing. really.
but it still didn't answer my question. perhaps due to the lack of an inclination to.

As for 'someone being considered "a god in Japan" ', last time I checked, Keanu Reeves lives and works mostly in North America, The USA. Where he is asked to prove he's a guest of the hotel (Chateau Marmont, as the gossip had it) before being served a drink. If that doesn't make someone experience five minutes of Joe Average's life...

"If you are all fans of Keanu’s, wouldn’t you want him to be the very best performer that he could possibly be? Wouldn’t you want for him to acquire what he aspires to?"
What I might want for Keanu and what Keanu wants for Keanu are two completely different things. What will actually happen in this reality couldn't care less about wants or wishes. Time will tell. As always.

"Why not back him up when he says he wants to better work and say “Yeah, man, we’ll go see you in better work!”"
I DID. several times. in writing.
not sure the industry was reading, though.

quality roles...
define quality.
just beware, it drove Pirsig insane.

btw, (2011-10-07 05:50:51)
 speaking of 'comprehension of the human': does Bobby de Niro travel by subway in NY? ALONE? with no bodyguards? does he put gas in his car unattended? does he wait in line to buy hotdogs and popcorn at a screening of one of his own films? Keanu Reeves does.
but,indeed, not in Japan.
Anakin McFly
now I'm hungry and want caviar (2011-10-07 14:50:31)

"Look, you guys, Keanu is the one going around saying that he wants to be a good/great actor"
Yep, and we're in full support of that. Speaking for myself, I don't think he's anywhere near perfect, in acting or whatever else. But neither do I think that he's anywhere near as bad as so many people persist in making him out to be.

Keanu did not need "600 takes"; he has, in several performances, personally requested extra takes even when the director did not consider it necessary. He's a perfectionist, and wants things to be perfect. Sometimes perfect doesn't translate to 'good' - which is why (as you noted in The Watcher), Keanu's performances that are filmed on a tight schedule and lower budget with less time for retakes have a tendency to feel more 'real' and perhaps genuine.

"“Real” is the actor who would never allow his character to do something that a human being wouldn’t do in whatever situation the character finds himself in."
^How do you define this? For any given action, I'm sure that there would be some human being somewhere who would totally do that. Heck, I've personally been accused of not acting like a human in my day-to-day life - a friend said that I was like a book character or something. So maybe some of Keanu's characters are a little weird. I tend to like that about them, because it makes them different and thus memorable. Conor is my favourite.

Like LucaM, I take some offense to your assertion that Keanu has somehow been sheltered from regular human life, because he's one of the few Hollywood celebrities who don't come across that way, and who go out of their way to not live a typical movie-star life; and that's a large part of why I'm a fan in the first place.

"If you are all fans of Keanu’s, wouldn’t you want him to be the very best performer that he could possibly be?"

All that, yes. Yes, all the way. Again, we acknowledge that he's not perfect.

But we the hardcore Keanu fans do not make up the majority of the fanbase. The majority of people who watch Keanu films aren't even fans; casual fans, maybe, but usually not more than that. He just doesn't evoke the same kind of intense mass adoration that, say, the Twilight stars do. It's partly a generation gap thing. Either way, what we here at this site (and the other Keanu fansites) believe or want will have little effect on what the target audience of Keanu films want to see, and the industry isn't going to bow to the demands of a few dedicated fans.

"Thanks for having me as a guest."

You're welcome. Thanks for creating one of the most active debates we've had on here in a while.

Guestsee (2011-10-08 02:07:47)
 See, Anakin, you are so nice.
You guys all make sense while that fishy guest does not because he/she is speaking out of ignorance...with an attitude. That is always annoying.
(2011-10-08 02:58:28)
 "...with an attitude. That is always annoying."

isn't it?

Yeah (2011-10-10 12:21:56)
 "You guys all make sense while that fishy guest does not because he/she is speaking out of ignorance...with an attitude. That is always annoying."

Spoken like a true sore-ass.

How it must hurt to have the door hit the sitting parts of your anatomy on the way out. Especially when you yourself think of that part of your anatomy as your most prized possession. What with being a gigantic ass and all, I mean.

Guestwow (2011-10-10 17:00:11)
 What did I do wrong to deserve all this animosity? I was siding with what you guys were saying. I didn't mean to come off as having an attitude. I just meant that that other person didn't have all the info needed to make a proper "judgment" and was making empty assumptions. I wasn't sore about anything, anywhere...was not upset at all. There was no reason to be so mean. Not very encouraging to want to post again. I really don't understand why you had to be that way.
Anakin McFly
sorry (2011-10-10 17:33:01)

It's hard to read tone on the Internet, and I didn't think you were having an attitude, though I could see how others might have thought otherwise.

Definitely hope you don't feel unwelcome; I'd like this site to be open to anyone.

GuestIt's ok. (2011-10-11 15:50:22)
 Thanks Anakin. No worries. It was all just a misunderstanding. Right, Inkhuldra? I will watch my tone in the future. Sorry.

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