Pity the fate of the blank-faced man or: Why you need to rewatch Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
Somewhere along the line, around about the time Pacino, De Niro, Brando and Hoffman and Hackman and Eastwood were intensing-it-up in a series of American early-mid '70s mood-offs like The Godfather movies and Taxi Driver and The Conversation and Straw Dogs and Dirty Harry it entered into popular consciousness (and OK, not without good reason) that "good actors" weren't whatever grand postulators & Shakespeare nerds but instead these... young, moody dudes. Tortured, paranoid, pulled at by the bonds of family and obligation and Peckinpahian rapists, these dour, mean, abused dudes changed everything. Intensity and frowniness became a way to gauge the worth of a performance and by extension of an actor himself. The new, talented American actors were here, and they were intense.
Which, well, fine… it's subjective, this performance thing, and in matters of taste there is no argument. It's held sway, the idea of moody, dark male actor being serious, talented male actor ever since. Adam Sandler is a no-talent goofball until he gets mad and breaks some windows in Punch Drunk Love, wherein he reveals "hidden depths" of talent. Bill Murray starts picking up Oscar nominations when he puts down his proton pack and starts getting alienated and ennui-ed in Tokyo in a Sophia Coppola movie: collectively, we equate seriousness with talent.
All of which has wreaked raw hell all over the career of a guy like Keanu Reeves. Has any actor taken more consistent guff over the course of a long career than Keanu? He's a punching bag, a piñata. He's a terrible actor, is the wisdom, a truth so obvious it nowadays goes just unpoken, the incredible success of many of his films a fluke or luck or hell, just down to the reciprocal idiocy of people with bad taste who don't mind paying to see a bad actor, a guy who couldn't find intense if someone taped intense to the side of his head.
Which is bulls**t. He's a great actor. He's a genius, a talent. This is something I will go to my grave believing. He has no intensity, he has the brow of a nine-year old, uncreased by worry or concern. He's blank, empty, overwhelmed content to "whoa" at the various obstacles and predations of life and trauma rather than to tackle it and bend them to his moody will. There is no angst in Keanu, and thank God for that.
What that means is that he is able to do things in films that no one else can. His is the high-school vapidity that sours into murder in Rivers Edge, one of best films of the '80s, weird as it was and is. It's Keanu that is the face of holy teenage idiocy in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and the blank grill of inchoate humanity that's got to learn to put its shades on and fight its way out of The Matrix.
Keanu is the actor that plays more often than not the son of the moody '70s man, the failure, the f**k-up in a terrible go-nowhere rock band. The damaging failures of the '70s and the worthless excessive successes of the '80s, the drugs, the crime, the paranoia and urban decay, divorce and money and abuse that was the milieu of the guys that De Niro and Pacino played birthed a generation of punks, coddled kids that just won't be serious. The MTV generation, the Beavises and Buttheads, the Pauly Shores, kids so stupid that they don't even know they're in trouble let alone how to get out of it.
Stephen Herek's Bill & Ted's is the annunciation of the arrival of that Holy Idiot, the blank. The film is one of the first that dealt with the idea that we had made ourselves stupid with decades of excess and success: that the surfer chic of the '60s and the metal & quaaludes of the '70s and the million-channel TVs of the '80s had created a generation of morons.
These films about idiots are unfairly dismissed seemingly because there exists still that weirdly persistent equivalence between intensity and worth, that the struggles of an angsty violent paranoiac like Travis Bickle are art, whereas Beavis hitting a frog with a bat is disposable and moronic. But we needed and still need actors like Keanu, who can without flaw personify those idiots, to be in very good, very important films like Rivers Edge and Bill & Teds. Films that act as expressions of and comments on the cultural panic that bubbled up alongside '80s suburban sprawl.
Keanu is spectacularly good in those films, especially as the loose-limbed untroubled moron Ted. It's an incredibly good performance, by a very talented dude, one that really no matter what I as a guy on the internet say will always be overlooked in favour of boring macho intensity and hang-dog seriousness.
This isn't the clichéd lament that a comedy will never again win the Best Picture Oscar, because… well, who cares. It's an entreaty: go see Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure at the Toronto Underground this weekend, or rent it one bored night. Watch it, and watch Keanu and ask yourself if there is another actor that could do what he did in that film as well as he did it. Isn't that what makes a good actor? Isn't that talent? You're goddamn right it is. Also it has George Carlin in it.
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