It surprised me to read somewhere recently that Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder have only been in four films together. I have a bit of a ‘thing’ for Winona Ryder – you can read about it here and here – and have followed Keanu’s career with interest from Bill, to Neo, to John. Anyway, it seems enough of an excuse for a blog post!
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) Keanu joined a long and continuing tradition of Hollywood actors murdering British accents (Russel Crowe in Robin Hood, Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins are other notable hall of famers). While Jason Statham is working hard to redress the balance with his various wavering American accents, there is no escaping the crimes committed. The director Francis Ford Coppola is also guilty of crimes against the original book even though the film is titled as to suggest an authentic adaptation of Stoker’s 1897 seminal gothic horror novel, it certainly is not.
Winona played posh girl Mina Murray who is betrothed to Jonathan Harker (Reeves) who has to travel to Transylvania to see Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) because a previous lawyer from his firm who visited came back nuts and didn’t seal the deal. However, we first see Winona playing the Count’s wife Elisabeta who on receiving a letter via arrow-mail from some lying Turks thinks her husband has died in battle and so throws herself off the side of the castle.
Dracula returns victorious from battle only to find his beloved is dead. He renounces the church and in this scene we realise that Coppola is going to throw everything at this in terms of spectacle. If a sword pierced cross bleeding deep red blood isn’t enough then water cannons loaded with blood firing from both sides of the set like something out of The Shining tell you all you need to know about the ‘feel’ the director is aiming for.
While Coppola leaves no stone unturned in terms of presenting us with a visual spectacle (e.g. Ghostbusters style green smoke, weird sci-fi pulsating blue rings and some very good looking vampire prosthetics) unfortunately the script and some of the acting, notably that of Keanu and unfortunately also Winona, kind of let the side down.
One can only imagine how the film might have faired over time if the casting had been different (Richard E. Grant as Harker instead of doctor Jack perhaps) and indeed if they’d stuck more to the source material, however these days it looks very ‘early 90s’ rather than late 19th century. I suppose it’s worth noting that there’s a cameo by Monica Belluci as one of the vampire brides in the castle and Sadie Frost and Anthony Hopkins are value for money as Mina’s ill-fated friend Lucy and Van Helsing respectively.
Keanu and Winona’s second film appearance together was eight years later in A Scanner Darkly (2006) an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s sci-fi ‘drug’ novel of the same title directed by Richard Linklater. I have written about the book and film in a previous post here: A Scanner Darkly.
While Keanu and Winona do share scenes together, we don’t really ‘see them’ together for real. The film was shot as live-action and then the live footage was animated over the top using a laborious rotoscoping process like that weird 1978 Lord of the Rings film everyone tries to forget about (it purportedly took 500 hours to get a minute on screen). It’s like the film is a giant metaphor for the story of the police surveillance scanners, drug hallucinations and the mysteries of reality. The druggy animated Rhubarb and Custard style is quite unsettling.
Keanu stars as an undercover Orange County police anti-narcotics agent known simply as Fred to his colleagues and as Bob Arctor to the dopeheads. Winona plays dopehead Donna – she’s Timothy Leary’s god-daughter, so perfect for the role. Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. are funny as Arctor’s drug muppet housemates, but Rory Cochrane steals the show as the completely bat-shit drug-addled and probably Dick’s alter-ego in the novel Charles Freck.
Unlike Coppola’s Dracula, the film is massively loyal to the original novel with most of the script taken from the book’s dialogue or descriptive sections. There are of course some updates and minor plotting shortcuts which help to tighten up the action and storytelling – but, unlike some PKD books, the story needs little help – it’s not a patched up short story but a wonderful coherent tale of escalating incoherence.
Their next film together was The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009) in which they both have small parts and don’t actually have any lines or even scenes together. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee stars Robin Wright (perhaps best known these days for House of Cards but also appeared in a range of films like Forrest Gump, Wonder Woman and Unbreakable) as the titular character whose move with her much older husband (Alan Arkin) to a retirement community and in a series of reveries of her past misdemeanours realises she might very well be having a nervous breakdown characterised by sleepwalking episodes Dracula’s Lucy would be proud of.
Talking of Dracula, Monica Bellucci also has a small part in this film as Gigi Lee (Pippa’s husband’s first wife), and perhaps I should be blogging about how many times her and Keanu have been in films together (off the top of my head it’s at least four times).
Keanu plays a guy called Chris who has a massive tattoo of Jesus on his chest and works on a garage store counter within sleep-driving (I kid you not) distance of Pippa’s home. He helps her out, she falls for him (despite in her youth obviously having a thing for older guys) and when her husband dies she drives off with Chris into the sunset.
Before that, Winona plays Sandra a fawning and neurotic girlfriend of Pippa’s husband’s friend. Pippa goes to see her husband in the office space she’s found for him only to discover he’s having sex with Sandra. Obviously he very much has a thing for younger women – he did after all pick up Pippa when she was very young (played by Blake Lively) while he was married to Gigi. Winona seems to be playing the role for laughs but it’s a rather incongruous performance compared to the rest of the cast who missed the memo that this was supposed to be a comedy.
And finally, talking of comedies, we come to Keanu and Winona’s latest outing Destination Wedding (2018). The film is most definitely a Keanu Reeves / Winona Ryder film – I don’t think there’s a scene in it where at least one of them doesn’t appear and most of the time they are together – but the star of the show for me is the script. It is an absolute triumph. And I say this knowing that a lot of people thought this film was a stone cold turkey. I am happy to applaud smart writing when I hear it on screen no matter how unrealistic it may be – Tarantino has it in patches, Brick had it in swathes and this film has it throughout.
One-liners, ripostes, zingers – they are all here. Destination Wedding is ostensibly about two cynical and sad wedding guests, Lindsay and Frank, who fall in love despite them both thinking the other is a dick, but what I think it is really about is writer/director Victor Levin having an absolute ball with a jaded and predictable chick-flick format. Levin isn’t a name I am familiar with, but a quick search on IMDB reveals that he’s been a busy man – writing, producing and directing a lot of well known American TV and film.
Rather against his strong silent type persona of late but still sporting the John Wick look Keanu delivers his complex lines in a deadpan style. Winona acts as his neurotic foil and eventually they succumb to each others charms. The events of the wedding are very much a distant backdrop to the interplay between these two characters. It takes a wedding comedy like Table 19 and says ‘these characters aren’t important, let’s just see what happens between these two’. For me the film was as enjoyable to watch as the stone cold relationship comedy classic When Harry Met Sally, and if I did a ‘film of the month’ this would be it. Both Keanu and Winona were excellent.
People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer, but yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.
Image composited, edited and manipulated by me from original artwork copyright Warner Bros. Happy to remove if needs be.