This is a slightly edited e-mail back-and-forth with my friend Nick:
Me to Nick:
A few weeks ago when my wife was up in VT with her family, she called me and was like: "You think Keanu Reeves is a good actor, right?" And I was like: "Yes, of course, why." Then she was like: "I'm going to put you on speaker so you can explain why he's a good actor to my [younger] brother." But he had only seen THE MATRIX and the first Bill and Ted movie, and he didn't think Reeves was very good in THE MATRIX, so it was basically an impossible task.
Poor Keanu! So misunderstood.
Nick back to me:
Keanu is a good actor for three reasons:
1) He understands the relationship between his character and "stock spectacle/high concept", and thus is always an effective foil for whatever the director is throwing at him.
2) Connected to #1, Keanu, "The Hero" is always ready to inject a sense of humility/frustration/embarrassm
ent into his action characters. He doesn't play "Superhuman" like 80s action stars, even when his character is pretty much "super human".
3) He's willing to try new things with varying degrees of success. He does great deadpan in I LOVE YOU TO DEATH.
I think, overall, he's a less gimmicky actor than Brad Pitt, but Pitt has somehow managed to gain a lot of goodwill by taking "bro" roles, like in OCEANS WHATEVER, MR AND MRS SMITH and, to some extent, FIGHT CLUB. I think Pitt's a more self-conscious actor, but that sometimes he can make that work (TRUE ROMANCE, parts of FIGHT CLUB).
Keanu, if not for his hunky frame, could probably have had a lot of success in the territory Joseph Gordon Levitt now occupies. He possesses a sort of dreamy stoicism that a lot of people equate to stupidity. I think it has more to do with being on a different frequency.
So, yeah - these are the kinds of conversations I actually have with people...I think he gets criticism because a lot of his biggest parts aren't very showy: Neo, for example, is meant to be a pretty reserved character. People equate "reserved" with "doing nothing". They miss out all the little things he does as an actor (your point #2). Like: the scene in THE MATRIX where he decides he needs to back into the Matrix after Morpheus - even though he doesn't really believe he's "the one" - is pretty fucking moving, but Reeves keeps everything really small. (Would you really want to see Robert Downey Jr. as Neo???) I can't think of any role where he "oversells" anything.
But I think he's also good when he's a little more "showy": like in THE GIFT or BILL AND TED or MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO. He has a pretty decent range for an actor of his time and place. People seem to forget these performances (or never saw them in the first place) when they're dissing him.
I think Pitt is pretty good when he's just being funny and charming, but, for the most part, he doesn't bring too much to the table. I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing - it works for the OCEANS movies and I thought some of the stuff he did in SMITH was pretty clever - but he's at his best when he gets out of the way, whereas Keanu (IMO) makes a positive, creative contribution to the roles he takes on.
Compare, for example, Pitt's stoner in TRUE ROMANCE, which is a pretty funny little comic turn, but basically a doodle (you can't imagine him extending it to feature length), with Keanu in A SCANNER DARKLY, where he really evokes the whole "walking wounded"-ness of far-gone stoners.
Good point about JGL, too. Reeves in RIVER'S EDGE is a lot like JGL is in his roles right now.