Keanu Reeves Week: Speed (1994)
IT’S JUST LIKE DRIVING A REALLY BIG PINTO.
by Liz Shannon Miller
In most major metropolitan areas around the world, taking the bus is a natural part of life, with no stigma attached. In Los Angeles, though, taking the bus is seen by many as weird and dangerous; a last resort for those struck by the tragedy of being carless. So of course a movie about a bus gone amuck is set in this city, the bomb strapped underneath almost as dangerous a threat as the traffic. Of course this is the city where “You will believe — a bus can fly.”
The 1994 movie Speed is a celebration of Los Angeles’s public transportation system, such as it is — incomplete freeways, buses crowded with random strangers, a woefully inadequate subway system. (When people say, “Wait, L.A. has a subway system?” this is the movie to remind them of.) After a brief elevator-set overture, introducing a mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) and the cop he becomes obsessed with blowing up (Keanu Reeves), we’re trapped with Annie (Sandra Bullock) and her fellow passengers aboard L.A. Metro Bus 2525, which will explode if it drops below 50 miles per hour.
That 50 MPH boundary is in theory the justification for the title — one of Speed's great visual ironies is turning a clunky bus into a high-velocity instrument of destruction. It's one thing to watch a Ferrari tear through the streets of Los Angeles, but the 33 downtown? That is not a vehicle you expect to see catch some air.
The bus is only one major player in Speed; like many movies from the 1990s, the movie is lush with “Hey, it’s that guy!” moments. In the elevator at the very beginning — Robert Mailhouse, aka J.J. on Sports Night and a bunch of other things! Not to mention that creepy eyebrows guy from all those other things!
Then, driving the Jaguar commandeered by Keanu on the freeway, is Glenn Plummer, who had a crazy two years from 1994 to 1996 with key supporting roles in Showgirls, Up Close and Personal and Strange Days, making him maybe the most 90s-ish minority actor of all time.
Inside the bus, the tragically exploded Helen is played by Beth Grant, Hollywood’s premium portrayer of spinsters and cat ladies for the last twenty or so years (ironically, she’s married with a child). And there’s Alan Ruck, eight years post-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — while the role of yokel tourist does not compare to his work as the beautifully aching Cameron, he still manages to find that same stunned pathos in the line “We’re at the airport. I already seen the airport.”
Then there’s Keanu, not so much playing the daredevil cop the script hints at as he is playing Keanu Reeves on a bus. No matter how stiff he is or how monotone the dialogue comes out, it’s a classic movie star performance — no craft, no character building, but still a masterpiece of furrowed brows and stunt work and getting the girl. And the girl he gets is ever so slightly more than a damsel in distress; I miss this Sandra Bullock, feisty and fun, tough and vulnerable.
The real unsung star of Speed, though, is the uncredited Joss Whedon, who was (according to the sole credited screenwriter Graham Yost) “responsible for 98.9 percent of the dialogue.”
The WGA arbitration process that determines who gets their names on the poster is a tough one, pitting writer against writer in a tooth-and-claw battle for the most credit and, as a result, the most money (for another look at this process, read screenwriter Josh Friedman’s very funny tale of the WGA arbitration over War of the Worlds). Whedon got screwed (as much as a for-hire script doctor, knowing full well that this is what happens all the time, can be screwed) but his work on the film is now relatively common knowledge — and considered to be the best part of the film (bus jumping over freeway gap notwithstanding).
I say it’s the best part of the movie, though Joss Whedon’s style of dialogue does not fare well when directed by non-native English speakers (c.f. Alien Resurrection), and while the Dutch Jan de Bont does his best, many moments feel out of key. The early banter between Keanu and his partner, played by Jeff Daniels, fares the best (due largely to Daniels’ talents and whatever camaraderie existed naturally between them) — exchanges like this…
Harry: [drunk] Well, I’m gonna go home, have some sex.
Jack: Harry, you’re gonna go home and puke.
Harry: Well that’ll be fun too.
…represent that classic sort of “show don’t tell” relationship building between bros. For the most part, though, throughout Speed there’s a blunt force to the way a lot of the dialogue is delivered, one that reminds me of Carrie Fisher’s classic George Lucas story about his only two lines of direction: “faster” and “more intense.”
Oddly, though, that imperfection has over the years become precious to me, like typos in a beloved paperback. Of all the great dialogue in Speed — Sandra Bullock’s half-terrified patter, Dennis Hopper’s epic ranting — my absolute favorite line might be one bus passenger’s brutish exclamation of “Hey, man, I got a wife!” Second favorite line: “I got gum on my seat. Gum.” These are lines that echo in my brain, years later, that I chant along with the film a moment before Ortiz or Annie has a chance to say them on screen. I love them because of their flaws, because they’re ridiculous, because they’re familiar.
Those moments of dialogue represent the bare minimum of characterization left from the pre-Whedon drafts; according to this AV Club interview with Beth Grant, Whedon’s draft was responsible not just for the film’s memorable dialogue, but a stripping down of character, including the transformation of Helen from a heroic friend of Annie’s to a meek and terrified bomb victim.
"There was just more backstory for all of us," Grant says. "It was kind of like The Poseidon Adventure, and very wisely, in this case, the studio said, ‘No, let’s just get on the bus and go.’ Joss had done that rewrite, so I teased him about it… He said, ‘Oh yeah, sorry about that.’ And I said, ‘No, thank God, because that’s why it was a hit.’”
Was it a hit because the characters were reduced to quick quips? Because “Die Hard on a bus” was an easy sell for audiences? Or was it a hit because of Keanu? He’s compelling here in a way that today’s movie-star-wannabes — the Chrises and Ryans and Justins — can’t touch, a pretty face paired with blunt machismo and given free reign to scream profanities when the situation calls for it. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of how much he cares about stopping this bus, saving these people, stopping this psycho that makes him so watchable. Because when he cares, so do we.
Liz Shannon Miller is a writer and pop culture enthusiast based in Los
Angeles. Surprise surprise, she is on tumblr.
Keanu Reeves Week: The Lake House (2007)
THIS (TIME) MACHINE KILLS REALISTS
by Bebe Ballroom
I’ve been staying with my grandmother in a retirement community for the elderly and the disabled. I am neither elderly nor disabled and so I am not actually allowed to be here. It’s sort of like the ill-advised movie In Her Shoes starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz except that this is rural Missouri and I’m not Cameron Diaz.
Many of the residents spend all day on their front porches, especially now with the temperate season. They know I’m here, they see my busted-ass eggplant-colored van, all my earthly possessions stacked in boxes and tote bags in the back, hidden beneath an impossibly bright Indian area rug. Occasionally I’ll raise the back to switch out boots for ballet flats or sweater dresses for sundresses. The residents stare at me as I locate certain accessories or art supplies.
On Sundays, we watch movies, mostly her choice. We’ve watched Sleepless in Seattle and Terms of Endearment and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Double Jeopardy, which my Grandma calls “Double Indemnity,” every time. About twenty-five minutes into the The Lake House, my Grandma says, “Either I’m not smart enough to understand what’s going on or this movie is stupid.”
“It’s not the first option, Gramma.”
Every time travel film exists in what is, as far as we know, an impossible world. Most don’t mind an overlooked detail or error in topography. The boundaries of the world need not be fully exposed, but the foundation should be strong. In this way, The Lake House is that one little pig’s house that was built of straw. It contradicts itself. The gaffer or the publicist or the caterer could have pointed out why the world of the film does not work, why the depiction of the letter exchanges does not work, why the voice-over does not work, but either no one did or no one cared.
Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock reunite for the first time since Speed, the awesome ‘90s opus about a city bus that’s gonna explode if it goes under 50 mph, which is an example of movie with a plot more sound than that of The Lake House. The film is about a working man, a working woman, a lake house, a dog, and a mailbox. One of these things is not like the others. One of these things is a time machine.
Sandra Bullock plays a doctor named Kate Forester. Keanu Reeves plays an architect named Alex Wyler. They lead separate, lonely lives in the Chicago area. Kate and Alex become pen pals and tell their friends they’re in a long distance relationship. What they don’t tell their friends, and who could blame them, is that an enchanted mailbox is allowing them to communicate two years apart.
“I like Keanu Reeves, don’t you?” Grandma says.
“Not particularly, no.”
“There’s one movie I really like him in. Oh he’s so good in it. What is it!”
“Something’s Gotta Give.”
“What? No. It’s got Jack Nicholson in it.”
“Something’s Gotta Give.”
“I told you, that’s not it.”
“Are you thinking of As Good As It Gets?”
“Yup, that’s the one. I just love Keanu Reeves in that, even if he does play a gay man! And he’s got that little dog, don’t you just love the dog?”
“The dog is great.”
The lake house was designed by Alex’s father, a pompous, aging horse’s ass played by Christopher Plummer (who my grandmother is convinced is Charlton Heston). The house is beautiful and on stilts, made mostly of windows, and even has a tree growing out the middle of it. The tree is displayed by a remote that actually pulls the house apart to reveal the tree. It’s 2004, the house has been “empty for years”. It’s hilarious how young people in romantic comedies are content to sit on piles and piles of cash. My family would have lost the lake house to one addiction or another decades ago.
The format of the movie seems to be as follows: show Kate being a doctor, show Alex being an architect, show Kate tolerating her boyfriend, show Alex tolerating his father. Between these scenes, are more scenes in which Kate is alone and Alex is alone. Actually, they are not alone, because there is a dog. The same dog. Yes, they are strangers… separated by two years… both with the exact same dog.
“Poor Jack’s really confused,” my grandmother says.
“He’s the Mrs. Doubtfire of dogs,” I say.
In the scenes where they are alone, they do lonely people things like eating for one or playing chess with themselves or brushing their teeth in a tiny bathroom. My favorite of these scenes is the one where Alex has made himself some sort of stew or curry or gumbo or something and it is steaming and he says, “Come to papa!” as he pours it from the pot into his bowl. Haha! It’s hilarious!
It’s during the times that they are alone that we hear their letters to one another, through voice-over of each person reading the letter they wrote. The magic mailbox belongs to the lake house. The first letter is left from Kate to Alex, greeting the next tenant and requesting him to forward her mail to the inner city Chicago address she provides. I’m still superbly confused about the precise deliverance of the timemail. Alex responds to Kate at her new address, so I assume that mailbox must also compromise time. But then it shows Kate receiving mail at the lake house mailbox, which is empty in 2006. So theoretically, she is driving out there every time, and reaching into the small metal vortex to retrieve something written two years ago.
The script takes care to drop some Dostoevsky, a Kerouac reference, an Austen novel as a plot device, and the words of Nietzsche. The presence of such elevated works in this film seem about as natural as shotguns at the birthday parties of children.
“What year is it?” my grandma keeps asking. The answer is 2004 if Keanu Reeves is on-screen and 2006 if Sandra Bullock is on-screen. Kate in 2006 communicates with Alex in 2004 and 2004 Alex communicates with 2006 Alex but 2006 Alex does not communicate with 2006 Kate or the other way around. But time is passing as the film progresses, even between their divided years. So at some point in the film, Alex must be in 2005 and Kate must be in 2007.
At two points in the film, Kate stands outside the lake house mailbox, writing messages and putting them in the mailbox and raising the red mailbox flag. The flag moves up or down before Kate’s eyes in the year 2006 to indicate that Alex is receiving the message, standing in the same spot in 2004. The flag raises up and down like the sound of a google chat notifier ding.
Questions, there are many. Here’s five:
1. Are both mailboxes time machines?
2. Does mail cost more to send through the time-space continuum or is it just the difference from 2004 first class mail to 2006 first class mail?
3. At what point do they not even bother with stamps at all?
4. What federal laws are they breaking?
5. How fucking confused are two mailmen somewhere?
Approximately halfway through the film, they start communicating in sentences. No, less even! Whereas they had previously conversed in entire letters, now they are saying things like:
“I like candied apples.”
“Oh do you?”
“Yeah, they’re da bomb.”
“You’re da bomb.”
They aren’t shown writing letters at this point, instead they are doing lonely people exercises and talking out loud to the other who is not in the room, nor in the hour, nor in the year.
According to the film’s own logic, they are now connecting through time and space in an instant, line by line as they speak, like time travel instant messaging. (What?) Theoretically, Kate is driving to the lake house mailbox to retrieve each sentence, but it’s portrayed as if they are in the same room. The film starts to fold in on itself like pastry dough.
Some unsurprising things about this film:
-Kate’s minuscule, nondescript silver earrings. A perfect representation of the film’s lack in characterization.
-This is more or less the director’s first mainstream American film. (Could it be Alejandro Agresti’s last? Is the world that kind?)
-Both characters have been burned by love before.
-Kate’s present self gets stood up by Alex’s future self.
-Someone’s future death is prevented. Yawn!
-At no point do either of the main characters express wonder, awe, or general freaked-out-ness. It is unsurprising becase they are unexcitable people.
Our fascination with time travel seems to generally represent itself in film under the motives of fate or science or love or happenstance. The motive here is love but whose motive is it? Does the lake house give a shit? Does the mailbox? Is it God? If it is, he goes unmentioned, along with game day results, significant world events, and lottery numbers. Along with butterfly effect theories, talk of science or any discussion Grandma Death would approve of. The saddest thing about the film is the premise itself, so completely harmless. A house on the lake, a magical mailbox, the power of time travel, all of these things working together to unite two of the most boring people who ever lived across the staggering distance of the year 2004 to the year… 2006. A fraction of a fraction of a blink in the history of the universe. The maximum span between car registrations in most states. The time it takes to earn an Associate’s Degree in Office Management. Shorter than the shelf life of a can of beets. It’s embarrassing.
My grandmother did not like it. It did not win my grandmother, who has been previously wooed by Edible Arrangements and Precious Moments figurines.
So I wonder, who did it win?
Bebe Ballroom would like to own a time travel mailbox machine. She tumbls here.