One way for any actor to know that they’ve made it is to be hired to play a version of themselves. Sometimes it’s a cameo role, like Bill Murray in Zombieland or Debra Messing in Bros. More rarely, it’s a fully-fledged fictionalized character, like Nicholas Cage in last year’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. But before Nicholas Cage tripped acid with Javi (played by Pedro Pascal), Keanu Reeves played an exaggerated version of himself in the Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe.
Directed by Nahnatchka Khan and written by Ali Wong, Randall Park, and Michael Golamco, Always Be My Maybe was released in May 2019. Wong and Park also star in the film as childhood friends Sasha and Marcus, whose teenage attempt at moving their relationship past the platonic backfired and resulted in them no longer speaking. Celebrity chef Sasha has returned to her native San Francisco to open a new restaurant and reconnects with Marcus, who works with his dad in the family business and plays in a largely unsuccessful band. Their chemistry is still there and when Sasha’s engagement falls apart, the two eventually find their way back to each other.
So where does Keanu Reeves fit in? Just as Sasha and Marcus are getting back onto better terms, she gleefully announces to him that she’s met someone new, and he spots a hickey on her neck. It’s from her new man, whose identity she hides from both Marcus and the audience, only sharing that they’ve had “insanely freaky-ass sex.” We only briefly hear Reeves’s voice in the short scene in which we see Sasha going on her first date with him.
Thus the big reveal of Reeves’s role in the film is him swaggering into a fancy restaurant as “Sail” by Awolnation plays. It’s perhaps one of the best character introductions of all time and certainly the best celebrity playing themself moment. From the suit to the sunglasses to the slow motion and the double-handed kiss he blows to Sasha, he’s the epitome of class and glamour, but in a manly way. He and Sasha exchange sickeningly sweet statements to each other: “I missed your light,” “I missed your soul,” “I missed how you smell.” From most men, this would be ick-inducing, but when Reeves is saying these lines, there’s a sensual element.
Reeves’s role in the story is largely to make Randall feel inferior. The restaurant that they’re at is purposefully created to seem like the epitome of pretentious fine dining. The multi-course meal plays with “the concept of time” and is made up of tiny dishes. One is barely there, but is said to give “the flavor of Caesar salad.” The main dish is a piece of venison that comes with a pair of headphones for each diner so that they can hear the animal that was killed while they’re eating it. Randall is clearly out of his element.
Keanu is essentially set up to be a larger-than-life character. He shares that he’s wearing a suit custom-made for him by Tom Ford. When he shares that he dropped out of high school to follow his dream, the two women are clearly impressed. Marcus’s strange girlfriend Jenny (Vivian Bang) fawns over Keanu for the whole meal. He’s the kind of guy who not only knows the wait staff by name but steps away from the table to discretely pay for the whole meal. And the meal costs $6,400, but Keanu notes that it’s “less than a residual paycheck for my hit movie, Speed.”
As the group moves from the restaurant to Keanu’s apartment, where they play a questions game that quickly turns nasty, Marcus awkwardly tries to keep up with Keanu. But how do you compete with a man who says that his childhood crush was Mother Teresa? Keanu becomes increasingly unhinged, smashing a vase of flowers over his head and daring Marcus to fight him. It’s high camp, and Reeves is great at it, reminding us that he’s a great comedic actor. Eventually, Sasha and Marcus are horrified by his behavior and leave together.
So what is the point of Keanu Reeves playing an overly pretentious version of himself in Always Be My Maybe? As with most plot devices in romantic comedies, it’s to catapult the main characters toward each other. Keanu makes Randall’s down-to-earth, simple personality seem desirable compared to the vain, ridiculous movie star. But having him play a version of himself rather than a similar character is a shortcut to telling us why Randall would be so jealous and intimidated by Sasha’s new man. I mean, what could be more disheartening than your ‘one who got away’ dating John Wick himself?
Reeves is an accepted standard for what a great man should be: he’s sensitive enough to appeal to women, but manly enough to be impressive to men. Plus, his part Chinese-Hawaiian heritage makes him a great fit for this film with a mostly Asian-American cast. Reeves took a few days off from filming John Wick 3 to be able to take part in the movie. And he was very dedicated to the part, even making edits to the script and suggesting certain jokes, according to an interview with director Khan.
The film ends with Randall’s band playing a song, co-written by Park and Dan the Automator, called “I Punched Keanu Reeves.” In an interview, Park shared that the song came about later in the process of making the movie. He said, “I wanted to write a tribute to Keanu, because he’s such a big part of all our lives and because he actually agreed to be in our movie.” He sent him the lyrics to get his approval for them and Reeves sent back his suggestions. Park elaborated, “In the original version, most of it was just a tribute to Keanu and there was one line that referenced the love story with Sasha. He’s the one who suggested we actually bring that part out a little more.” This sort of generosity in wanting the song to serve the story rather than simply exalt him matches Reeves’s reputation of being a remarkably selfless and kind Hollywood man.
It might not be the most defining role of his career, but playing himself in Always Be My Maybe is one of the most unique things that Reeves has done in his career. The willingness to play himself in a film, as a man to make the love interest realize his feelings for the main character, speaks to his star power – but also to his ability to not take himself too seriously.
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