6 Films That Prove Keanu Reeves Should Do More Comedy
by Sarah Myles
What is the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the name ‘Keanu Reeves’? Chances are you’ll be thinking The Matrix, Speed and Point Break – in that order. Bill And Ted might sneak in there, depending on how old you are, but the point is, this is an actor who is now famed for his action movies. It’s not surprising – more often than not, his forays into the genre have heralded a project that has reinvigorated tired themes and created films that have quickly achieved legendary status.
His recent movie release, John Wick, is a great example of that. Co-directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch from a script by Derek Kolstad, the action thriller about a former hitman dragged out of retirement and seeking revenge takes all the elements we’ve seen a million times and shakes them up, like a storytelling snowglobe. Crucial to its success is its humour, which Reeves delivers deftly within a film that has won broad approval from audiences and critics alike.
Make no mistake, Reeves is an accomplished action hero, and long may his testosterone flood our screens. But, while many critics breezily dismiss him as a one-genre wonder, I wholeheartedly disagree. For a start, you only have to watch his weighty dramatic turns in films such as My Own Private Idaho and The Gift to realize that this man has talents beyond kung-fu and gun-play. There is a bigger issue at hand, here, though – and I have a theory. My theory is that Reeves has not yet found his calling-card non-action role, because he has yet to flex his biggest and most impressive muscle onscreen in his adult, post-1993 career. My theory is that Keanu Reeves needs a proper comedy.
Since his career hit the stratosphere – trapped on a fast-moving bus with Sandra Bullock, at the mercy of a vengeful Dennis Hopper – Reeves has rarely returned to the genre that actually helped him on his way in the first place. Frustratingly, we are occasionally offered tantalizing glimpses of that razor-sharp comic timing amid more dramatic Keanu-fare, but it is never allowed to fully blossom. Even in ‘dramedies’, such as Feeling Minnesota, Something’s Gotta Give, Thumbsucker, The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee and Henry’s Crime, Reeves is often boxed in as the ‘straight-man’ to more outlandish characters. I contend that Keanu Reeves is actually a powerhouse comedic talent, trapped in the career of an action star – and here is the evidence to prove it.
The Night Before
Long before there was The Hangover, there was The Night Before. Sure, it’s incredibly sexist – but most things were back in 1988, when a relatively unknown Keanu Reeves starred as Winston Connelly for director Thom Eberhardt. The story sees Winston wake up in an alleyway in the middle of the night, with no recollection of how he got there.
Flashbacks reveal that Winston was supposed to be taking Tara (Lori Loughlin) to the prom, since she lost a bet on a football game. However, en route to the event, Winston gets them lost on “the wrong side of the tracks,” accidentally sells Tara to a pimp, and loses his Dad’s car. Hilarity ensues as Winston frantically tries to undo his night of bumbling misdeeds, and get Tara, himself, and his Dad’s car safely back home before the pimp tracks him down and kills him.
Ignoring, for a moment, the rampant misogyny that dominated 1980s cinema, The Night Before succeeds solely because Keanu Reeves hits every comedic note with pitch perfect aim. His character is initially presented as somewhat oblivious, and over the course of the night in question, he has no choice but to dig deep and become a semi-competent hero. His charm is the element that helps the audience forgive the fact that it is his own mess he is clearing up, and he quickly becomes the champion to cheer for – the underdog, trying to succeed in a difficult situation.
That situation allows for Reeves to showcase his considerable skill. From his visible discomfort as the young couple find themselves in an ‘undesirable’ part of town, to his understated reaction to realising the enormity of his mistakes. From his attempts to relate to neighbourhood gangsters, to his exasperated banter with his reluctant prom date – The Night Before is an early comedy showcase for the young Keanu Reeves.
I Love You to Death
In an all-star cast filled with multiple award-winning performers, Keanu Reeves and his scene partner William Hurt – himself an Oscar winner – steal an entire movie with the most hilariously executed portrayal of stoned hitmen.
I Love You To Death is based, very loosely, on the real life case of Frances and Anthony Toto, and features Kevin Kline and Tracey Ullman as Joey and Rosalie Boca – owners of a popular pizza parlour. Rosalie is devastated when she discovers that Joey is actually a prolific womanizer, and sets about trying to kill him, with the help of her mother – played by Joan Plowright – and her co-worker/secret admirer, Devo, played by River Phoenix. When their attempts to poison him fail, Devo recruits two drug-infused hitmen to finish the job in what is supposed to be a more professional manner.
Appearing as Marlon and Harlan James, Keanu Reeves and William Hurt deliver a comedic tour de force as they stumble into the situation, and gaze upon the unfolding events through a narcotic haze. Their physical reactions and verbal musings are perfectly matched to each other, while being the necessary five beats behind everyone else in the film – a contrast that provides the majority of laughs.
While the film is filled with fantastic moments for the pair – such as Reeves being startled by an inflatable dinosaur – it is the longer sequences that are the most delicious. Legendary director Lawrence Kasdan takes Reeves and Hurt’s biggest scenes, and allows them to unfold in deliberately paced, unhurried fashion. Negotiating their fee with a straight-faced, disguised River Phoenix, planning how to kill Kevin Kline, and even their patriotic, fumbled pledge of allegiance, ending with Reeves requesting that America “deliver us from freedom” – I Love You To Death contains a masterclass in comedy from Keanu Reeves.
While Ron Howard’s iconic 1989 ensemble movie cast Keanu Reeves in a less-than ground-breaking role, the actor still takes the opportunity to turn in scenes that are both heart-warming, and very, very funny. The cast is led by Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen as a married couple struggling with the stresses of parenthood and employment. The wider cast features Martin’s character’s family, and the very different struggles they are dealing with. One of his sisters, played by Dianne Wiest, is a single-mother to High School senior Martha Plimpton, and early teen Joaquin Phoenix. Plimpton is dating Reeves – a ‘slacker’, who wants to hang out with his brothers and pursue his dream of drag racing.
Within the framework of the wider film, Reeves and Plimpton create a hysterical and hormonally volatile late-teenage relationship that repeatedly explodes in various ways throughout the movie. Initially seeing Reeves’ character through the disapproving eyes of his girlfriend’s mother, we are gradually given the opportunity to warm to him – just as she does – as he reveals increasingly vulnerable aspects of himself to the family. Ultimately, his character perfectly encapsulates the combination of warmth and comedy that forms the foundation of the film, as he details to Dianne Wiest his experience of living with an abusive father – but not before he informs her that he has solved the problem of her young son’s obsession with “slapping the salami,” by telling him, “that’s what little dudes do.”
From the minds of Alex Winter, Tom Stern and Tim Burns, the little seen Freaked is a gem of absurdist cinema, and features a brilliant, but uncredited performance by Keanu Reeves, as a dog. This surreal black comedy from 1993 follows former child star Ricky (Winter), his friend Ernie (Michael Stoyanov) and an environmentalist named Julie (Megan Ward) as they find themselves at the mercy of Freak Show operator Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid).
They discover that Skuggs creates his own ‘freaks’ by mutating people with a particular chemical, and he soon uses the process on the bewildered trio. Julie and Ernie become conjoined, while Ricky becomes ‘half-monster.’ In trying to figure out how to escape, Ricky gets to know the rest of the freaks – including Bobcat Goldthwait, John Hawkes and Mr T – who are led by Ortiz the Dog Boy (Keanu Reeves). As Ricky’s popularity within the group grows, a power struggle develops between him and Ortiz.
Freaked contains a comedic performance by Keanu Reeves that is filled with such joyful abandon that it is hard not to find his canine playfulness infectious. Unrecognizable under layers of fur, he engages in strategies to manipulate and dominate, while periodically pausing for a scratch behind the ear. Sniffing, growling and howling at the sky, Ortiz the Dog Boy is a stand-out role in a strange and surprising movie.
Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey
Bill and Ted may have had their first Excellent Adventure in 1989, but it was their Bogus Journey in 1991 that really made the most of the cast’s comedic skills. With a darker, edgier script featuring travel between life and death as well as travel between history and future, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) must team with the Grim Reaper to defeat two “Evil Robot Us-es” and save the world.
This sequel builds on the original by giving its stars an opportunity to expand their characters far beyond that of standard follow-on movie chapters. Here, we see Winter and Reeves play alternate, evil versions of their iconic, airhead roles – and they seize the challenge with relish. For his part, Evil Ted becomes an intimidating figure – physically imposing, and dangerously unencumbered by human morality. The power of Bogus Journey, in terms of an appreciation for the comedy skills of Reeves, is that – at a time when the actor was frustratingly type-cast as the ‘bumbling airhead’ – the contrast of the two Teds provided a reminder that Reeves could do much more.
In addition to getting to play the darker side of the characters, Reeves and Winter flexed their comedic muscles to a greater extent as the ‘good’ Bill and Ted, too – particularly in their scenes negotiating with Death, their fathers, Satan, and eventually, God.
It’s rare to find a sports comedy movie that is unpredictable, and 2000’s The Replacements is certainly not that movie. Watching it feels like slipping into a pair of warm, old slippers – you know it’s going to be comfortable and familiar, and that it will generate a feeling of warm, fuzziness deep inside. Having Keanu Reeves in the lead role only adds to that sensation because, for audiences, he feels like a known quantity.
His role as Shane Falco – a failed quarterback drawn back onto the field to lead a team of amateurs when the professional players go on strike – is clichéd, but well-executed. It gives Reeves the chance to do the thing he does best outside of action movies – bring the comedy within an equally talented ensemble cast.
He delivers exactly what is required to perpetuate the sensation of watching a team grow. As previously mentioned, this is a film that, more often than not, has him as the ‘straight-man’ – reacting to the comic behaviour of fellow castmates, such as Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Rhys Ifans and Orlando Jones. His portrayal of an older player fumbling his way through leading a team provides flashes of fantastic comic skill, however. Nowhere near enough, but flashes nonetheless. Just enough to let us know that the comedy potential of Reeves is still there – bubbling away beneath the surface.