For an actor still caricatured for his stoned Ted persona, Keanu Reeves is taking a risk by playing the passive lead of Henry’s Crime. The low-key comedy concerns a man so maddeningly blank he shrugs off taking the fall when his friends rob a bank. Reeves’s Henry goes to prison, loses his wife (Judy Greer) to another man, gets out, plans to rob a bank himself (why not?)—and then suddenly finds himself in love, with both an aspiring actress (Vera Farmiga) and…regional theater.
If it sounds like an unusual mix of romance, humor and crime drama (Henry’s partner is an old crook played by James Caan), it’s also heartfelt—part of an organic concept that Reeves developed with writer Stephen Hamel and Anvil! director Sacha Gervasi. (The film itself was directed by Malcolm Venville.)
“The first part of it—and this was Stephen’s idea—was to go and try to commit a crime that you’ve already committed,” Reeves, who had just turned 46, told us at the Toronto International Film Festival. “And from that, what does that turn into? We turned it into a story of a guy changing his life.” Henry winds up playing Lopakhin opposite Farmiga’s character in a Buffalo production of The Cherry Orchard. The character’s greed is presented as a contrast to Henry’s growing ambivalence about robbing the bank; Reeves also points out multiple ways in which the film plays on questions of will and fate.
If Chekhov seems like a heady milieu for the star who matched wits with Dennis Hopper in Speed (“I’m smarter than you! I’m smarter than you!” “Yeah, but I’m taller!”), Reeves has always been a more intellectual actor than he’s gotten credit for. There have been college courses in the Tao of Reeves since at least 1994, well before The Matrix became a staple of pop philosophy.
Reeves smiles at the idea of his work being taught. “Maybe not in the Ph.D. part of the program,” he says. “I don’t know, I guess you’d have to see the syllabus, right? There’s a lot of great filmmakers in [my] story. In terms of motifs, we have a lot of hero journeys, a lot of journeys of the outsider.”
It’s certainly a varied roster of directors, but working with everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to Kathryn Bigelow to Nancy Meyers to Kenneth Branagh (in Shakespeare) hasn’t cured Reeves’s desire to try something new.
“I wouldn’t mind doing a musical,” he says, citing Annie Hall as having the tone he’s looking for. “An original. Something unabashedly romantic—a man and a woman in New York.” (He says he’s sung a couple of times, mostly early in his career, though he admits he’d “have to work on that.”)
That doesn’t mean his Ted persona is completely gone. His next film is the evocatively titled Generation Um…. But chilling on a couch in a hotel bar, playing with my Flip camera to catch himself and me at odd angles, he laughs at the idea that people might think the real Reeves is Mr. Whoa. “Maybe I can be accused of doing my work too well,” he says. “I guess there was some kind of crossover where [viewers] felt that that was me—and it’s not.”