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Is Keanu Reeves a good actor? Or even more awful than we thought?

August 16, 2011 |  9:33 am


Nestled in a New York Times to-and-fro about the current state of Hollywood acting is this nugget from A.O. Scott about Keanu Reeves. Asked by a reader, somewhat inscrutably, whether Reeves is a "good bad actor" or a "bad good actor," Scott returns with a decisive answer.

"A good actor, period. One who has appeared in some pretty bad movies, for sure. 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."

It's not clear whether Scott is being entirely straight-faced -- he does call "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" hugely influential -- but he does seem to be making at least a semi-serious contrarian argument, citing a moment in "Parenthood" as an "emblem of precise and subtle screen technique." Scott finishes in saying, "And the more you look at his performances, the more instances of that kind of skill you notice."

So how much is Reeves a good actor dragged down by some bad roles? And how much is he a bad actor dragged down by a lack of talent?

Here are three movies that help Scott's case, and three (at least) that suggest that Marlon Brando's legacy is not in any imminent danger. Have a look at the evidence, then tell us what you think.

Three movies that make Keanu's case:

"The Matrix." The endless wooden moments and all the discussions about whether Reeves' Neo is, in fact, "The One," don't exactly crackle with subtle energy. But let's be honest. It's not as if the actor were  working off an Aaron Sorkin script. And the kind of gnomic blankness Scott describes is exactly what's needed in a movie that indulges fanboy whimsy.

"The Gift." A piece of Southern pulp would seem like a strange place for an actor of Reeves' limitation to try to show some range. But as an abusive, alcoholic husband, Reeves brings some human intimidation to a film otherwise filled with baroque supernatural scares.

"Thumbsucker." One of Reeves' occasional forays to the indie world, this time in a coming-of-age movie (and a comic-relief part to boot). In some movies Reeves can look, painfully, like he's not in on the joke. But as the deluded dentist in Mike Mills' literate feature, Reeves is sending up his own image, and doing it with deadpan humor.

And three movies (or more)  that confirm the haters' suspicions:

"Speed." Yes, save-the-world roles are tricky for anyone not named Will Smith. But even in a one-dimensional action flick, it's hard to believe that Messiah would take the form of a surfer boy. And it says something about your performance when you're being out-acted by a bus.

"The Lake House." Romantic dramas are hard even for Ryan Gosling, and even when they're set in one time period. When you have to show all your love to another person via letters sent through a mailbox portal (yes, really), you better be up to the task. Reeves? Not so much.  Attempts at a layered relationship with his father and some kind of depth-through-architecture thing only makes us cringe more. Honorary mention, incidentally, to "Sweet November," in which Reeves doesn't try to move through time but, rather, to stop it. He fails, but does make us wish we could H.G. Wells our way to a time before we saw the movie.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still." This should have been Reeves' bread-and-butter. As Klaatu the alien, the role actually allows Reeves to seem weird and removed. But the actor doesn't end up convincing us that he's traveled billions of miles to save us so much as he convinces us that he'd rather be on another planet. So would we.



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Keanu Reeves talks Bill & Ted threequel

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Keanu Reeves in "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure." Credit: Orion Pictures Corp.