August 20, 2019

Keanu Reeves Is Too Good for Hollywood

“Last week, I read a report in the Times about the current conditions on Mt. Everest, where climbers have taken to shoving one another out of the way in order to take selfies at the peak, creating a disastrous human pileup. It struck me as a cogent metaphor for how we live today: constantly teetering on the precipice to grasp at the latest popular thing. The story, like many stories these days, provoked anxiety, dread, and a kind of awe at the foolishness of fellow human beings. Luckily, the Internet has recently provided us with an unlikely antidote to everything wrong with the news cycle: the actor Keanu Reeves.

Take, for instance, a moment, a few weeks ago, when Reeves appeared on “The Late Show” to promote “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum,” the latest installment in his action-movie franchise. Near the end of the interview, Stephen Colbert asked the actor what he thought happens after we die. Reeves was wearing a dark suit and tie, in the vein of a sensitive mafioso who is considering leaving it all behind to enter the priesthood. He paused for a moment, then answered, with some care, “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.” It was a response so wise, so genuinely thoughtful, that it seemed like a rebuke to the usual canned blather of late-night television. The clip was retweeted more than a hundred thousand times, but, when I watched it, I felt like I was standing alone in a rock garden, having a koan whispered into my ear.

Reeves, who is fifty-four, has had a thirty-five-year career in Hollywood. He was a moody teen stoner in “River’s Edge” and a sunny teen stoner in the “Bill & Ted” franchise; he was the tortured sci-fi action hero in the “Matrix” movies and the can-do hunky action hero in “Speed”; he was the slumming rent boy in “My Own Private Idaho,” the scheming Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the eligible middle-aged rom-com lead in “Destination Wedding.” Early in his career, his acting was often mocked for exhibiting a perceived skater-dude fuzziness; still, today, on YouTube, you can find several gleeful compilations of Reeves “acting badly.” (“I am an F.B.I. agent,” he shouts, not so convincingly, to Patrick Swayze in “Point Break.”) But over the years the peculiarities of Reeves’s acting style have come to be seen more generously. Though he possesses a classic leading-man beauty, he is no run-of-the-mill Hollywood stud; he is too aloof, too cipher-like, too mysterious. There is something a bit “Man Who Fell to Earth” about him, an otherworldliness that comes across in all of his performances, which tend to have a slightly uncanny, declamatory quality. No matter what role he plays, he is always himself. He is also clearly aware of the impression he makes. In the new Netflix comedy “Always Be My Maybe,” starring the standup comedian Ali Wong, he makes a cameo as a darkly handsome, black-clad, self-serious Keanu, speaking in huskily theatrical, quasi-spiritual sound bites that either baffle or arouse those around him. “I’ve missed your spirit,” he gasps at Wong, while kissing her, open-mouthed.”

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