I was watching Always Be My Maybe with my wife on Valentine’s Day, munching on cheesecake, pecan pie with ice cream, and M&Ms when Keanu Reeves walked onto the screen as the mysterious date for the lovable and luckless in love, Sasha Tran.
He strode into the pretentious restaurant, a caricature of fine dining, dressed in black and wearing lens-less glasses. I murmured to myself, “Its Keanu.” And my wife asked, “Who?”
The fact that my wife doesn’t know Keanu Reeves aside, this is actually a challenging question to answer. Who is Keanu Reeves? And even more challenging, who is Keanu Reeves in this context? This is not the action star Keanu Reeves. This is the internet meme, Keanu Reeves, the conglomeration of all his films, good and bad, cheesy and sentimental, action and comedy, melded with the viral reaction to his wholesomeness and good-natured sense of humor.
So how does anyone explain that?
I think one would have to start with his action films. His genuine success in movies like Speed, The Matrix, Point Break, and Johnny Mnemonic that made him mainstream and begat more modern action roles like his John Wick franchise. Because at the core of all Keanu’s intriguing elements, is a very successful action star whose movies put him on the A-list movie star map.
Then add to the recipe his cult comedy status as the co-lead of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which was his first big break and played up his dazed Californian demeanor and stigmatized him as a bit of a moron. To see that man become Neo and the lead in other action movies created a whiplash effect in viewers, like watching a child TV star doing serious drama films, or anyone from Harry Potter doing anything else.
Then stir in his serious roles, for good or for bad, like Hardball and Lake House. Two movies that span the spectrum that is Keanu. They show him at a high and a low, people taking him seriously and people thinking he is a hack. Because as Keanu navigated so many different types of films from the 90s to the aughts, he always seemed chided for his series roles and/or pigeon-holed as someone who could not do them. Because of his roots in Bill and Ted and for doing blockbuster movies like The Matrix and Speed, people seemed to take his serious work with a grain of salt. The Lake House felt like critics making their case in point based on one film misstep.
Thus, we have the dry mix for the Keanu who could confidently stride into Always Be My Maybe, context required, and do absurd shit. Because during all that time, he was consistent. Consistent in producing great movies that were worth watching over and over again. And consistent in his humility as he did it. As much as people didn’t take him seriously when they probably should have, he never took himself too seriously either. And over time, internet culture did something quite out of the ordinary with Keanu. They recognized his quality and placed him on a pedestal.
It started with Keanu’s response to Colbert’s question at the end of their interview for John Wick 3. Colbert asked him a question rooted in the not-so-serious way people viewed Keanu at the time- what did he think happened to us when we died? Keanu, unperturbed at why Colbert might be asking this question of him, replied, “I know the ones who love us will miss us.”
The answer was simple and profound and kind. Just enough to shatter the façade of ‘Keanu the gimmick.’ The clip went viral and started a healthy life for Keanu on the internet. Part of this internet aura was due to his mystery. We don’t know a ton about him, which is fine for the internet, we will create our own story for him. And the stuff we do see, or the small moments we can turn into some sort of narrative, makes him seem like a genuinely good dude. His girlfriend gave birth to a stillborn child in the late nineties. She died in a car accident two years later. He now dates an a-typical Hollywood A-lister girlfriend.
People have taken to sharing quirky stories about him performing acts of kindness for fans, like helping people get to their destination after an emergency plane landing, buying lunch frequently for the small-time workers on his movie sets, or giving them a 20-thousand-dollar Christmas bonus.
And then there are the photos of him that the internet glommed onto and created stories around, like Keanu hanging out with a homeless guy or his hands hovering just above women’s shoulders, not quite making contact, as they take photos with him.
He seems like a decent and kind man at a time where most other men in power, especially in Hollywood, seem like genuine grade-A asshole misogynists. And thus, the cream that is Keanu rose to the top. People played back his greatest hits, revisit the power and impact of Hardball appreciating his iconic characters like John Wick and Neo. They took his comedy more seriously, not as a representation of a lack of intelligence but as good acting and genuine fun.
Now, peruse any internet social or Google ‘Keanu’ and instead of the usual Internet degradation that follow the rich, the famous, and the prominent, there is nothing but goodwill and wonderful stories for a man that, through decades of being taken not-so seriously just kept being a good guy.
I didn’t know how to explain that Keanu to my wife as he acted like a pretentious douche bag who was overly sexual around women and looked down on those poorer than him. The best way to do so would be just to say, ‘everything you see Keanu do here is the opposite of who he actually is,’ or at least what the internet has created about him.
Keanu Reeves has become a walking meme, and we don’t deserve him.
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