Unlike James Dean post “East of Eden,” Keanu’s rebel portrait in “River’s Edge” didn’t compel infatuated youngsters to plaster their bedroom walls with his sullenly sexy image. Keanu initially belonged to the cool kids. In the 1988 duo of “Permanent Record” and “Prince of Pennsylvania,” he emitted an alternative rock type of edginess that, as the Brat Pack heartthrobs were supplanted by the vacuous, non-threatening likes of Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and Kirk Cameron, hit like The Cure to their Bon Jovi.
Hollywood, however, had other ideas, and Keanu needed to make a movie that received a wide theatrical release. While “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” delivered at the box office, most critics savaged it as a brainless comedy. But OG Keanu fans rolled with it. Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon’s uproarious script allowed Keanu and Alex Winter to work kind-hearted variations on the tortured (or, in Winter’s case, vampiric) teens they’d played in the past.
For Keanu, it cracked open a surprising capacity for self-deprecating comedy; he’d mostly been playing the same slacker dude note since “River’s Edge” (even in “Dangerous Liaisons”), so to see him exaggerate this persona only made him more endearing as a performer. He got it, and he trusted us to play along. Keanu modulated this persona as Tod, the affable loser boyfriend of Martha Plimpton in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood.” The way Tod delicately conveys Joaquin Phoenix’s struggle with incipient puberty – “I told him that’s what little dudes do” — to Dianne Wiest is inimitable. Only Keanu could hit the spacy emotional bullseye like that.
There was only one logical move for Keanu from here, and that was to make a Queer Cinema classic while starring in the most ludicrously adrenalized action movie of the 1990s.