Typecasting and filmgoers’ perceptions of a performer can play havoc with a career.
Because of the popularity of 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and 1991’s Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Keanu Reeves’ image in the early 1990s was unfortunately cemented as a goofy, but harmless, airhead.
Forgotten were his performances in River’s Edge, Permanent Record, Parenthood and My Own Private Idaho — the latter of which, under the direction of Gus Van Zant, was Reeves’ first foray into a Shakespearean environment. Idaho was loosely based on the Bard’s Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V.
Reeves also appeared in supporting roles in the period dramas Dangerous Liaisons and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for which he was mocked for his attempt at an English accent.
Kenneth Branagh apparently believed Reeves had the acting chops to tackle Shakespeare, casting him as the villainous Don John in his 1993 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.
Surrounded by the likes of Branagh as Benedick, Emma Thompson as Beatrice and Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, Reeves did not have much to do except glower and plot mischief. He tries mightily to get into the flow of the Shakespearean dialogue; sometimes he succeeds, but most other times, you expect him to utter a “dude” or “excellent” after a line or two. I really enjoy Much Ado About Nothing, but Reeves seems out of place; at times, he looks and acts uncomfortable.
It is noteworthy that while the movie received a 90% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the two players whose performances were panned by a majority of critics were Reeves and Michael Keaton’s very bizarre turn as Dogberry, the local constable.
As a sidebar, Reeves was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor. I believe that was unkind. His performance does not rise to the technical levels of Branagh, Thompson, Washington or other supporting players such as Kate Beckinsale, Brian Blessed, Robert Sean Leonard or Richard Briers.
Reeves has just a few scenes in Much Ado. When, at the finale, he is captured and brought before Don Pedro, his scowling continence lacks the intensity necessary to carry off the sequence. It’s unfortunate that Reeves lacked the gravitas needed for the role. His Don John is the half-brother of Washington’s Don Pedro, yet his Don John pouts like a spoiled younger brother craving fame and hating banishment to the background.
Reeves is best in some of his non-dialogue sequences when he is viewed seething with resentment because others, namely Don Pedro’s cohorts Benedick and Claudio (Leonard), are favored more by his kinsman.
Reeves’ spotlight moment is when he airs his grievances to his companions and plans to sabotage the romance between Claudio and Hero (Beckinsale). But his delivery when conspiring with his two henchmen fails to rise to the level of malevolence needed for the occasion. He delivery is more like a frat boy planning a prank than a nobleman. This is the scene that either makes or breaks Reeves’ performance — and, unfortunately, he stumbles. His gait and mannerisms are too contemporary. He says the necessary words, but they ring hollow because Reeves cannot muster the emotional peak needed to carry off the scene.
I do wonder what Branagh saw in Reeves and ask myself why he was cast. Was it a ploy to attract younger viewers? Or did Branagh view My Own Private Idaho and believe Reeves had the acting chops to pull off the characterization?
Whatever the reason, Reeves is one of Much Ado About Nothing’s weak links. Luckily, his few scenes do not damage the movie. They simply display a young actor struggling out of his depth.