As much as Netflix’s latest rom-com, Always Be My Maybe, focuses on the will-they-won’t-they relationship between childhood friends Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park), the film also carefully considers the relationship between a person’s upbringing and who they end up becoming. Sasha is a renowned celebrity chef, and her version of fine dining—fusion-y food with a focus on dishes that, while extremely Instagrammable, may or may not be that appetizing—is a stark contrast from the meals she and Marcus grew up with, the kind of comfort food that fits in a giant bowl and fills you to the brim. For Sasha, her journey isn’t just about reigniting sparks with her first crush; it’s about shedding a particular artifice and getting back in touch with her roots.
Of course, like any person experiencing a crisis of faith and identity, a life-changing event needs to occur to trigger reflection and action. This event for Sasha comes in the form of … Keanu Reeves?!?!
For anyone who watched Always Be My Maybe’s trailer earlier this month, the reveal that Reeves appears in the film won’t come as a surprise. He is, as Sasha lays out at the end of the trailer, the progenitor of some “insane, freaky-ass sex.” (This revelation, per conventional rom-com guidelines, unfortunately occurs right before Marcus professes his love to Sasha.) He is the man who lustily whispers, “I missed your heart,” “I missed your light,” “I missed your soul,” “I missed your spirit,” “I missed your smell,” and “I missed your thighs.” (Note to Netflix: A 10-hour loop of Keanu Reeves saying “I missed your thighs” will earn more viewers than all three seasons of Bloodline.) That was to be expected. But what isn’t apparent from the trailer is that Reeves isn’t just playing a particularly horny rebound for Sasha—Keanu Reeves is playing Keanu Reeves. Neo, John Wick, Theodore “Ted” Logan—whatever you want to call him—is the particularly horny, thigh-obsessed dude.
The history of this kind of cameo, the Actor Playing a Heightened Version of Themself, is a long and rich one. It has been deployed in serious settings, such as when John Malkovich gamely submitted himself to be the body inherited by John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener’s characters in Being John Malkovich. It has, most frequently, been deployed for comedic effect, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s appearance as a moonlighting pilot in Airplane! to the entire party scene that kicks off This Is the End. It has even been deployed in animated film. But the Actor Playing a Heightened Version of Themself has rarely been so weaponized as it is in Always Be My Maybe.
The Keanu Reeves we meet carries the actor’s trademark earnest stoicism and beguiling spirituality—with all of it ramped up to 11. When Marcus’s hippie girlfriend tells him that Reeves is her favorite star, Keanu simply responds: “The only stars that matter are the ones you look at when you dream.” There’s a very thin line between genuine profundity and eye-rolling pretentiousness—Reeves’s viral answer to Stephen Colbert’s inquiry about what he thinks happens when a person dies sits right on it—and Always Be My Maybe envisions an alternate reality where Keanu’s innate charm masks a prototypically vapid, douchey movie star who wears an absurd quasi-tie and glasses without any frames in them.
The setting for Keanu’s initial appearance plays into this, too. Sasha invites Marcus and his girlfriend on a double date to meet her mystery man at a restaurant called Maximal—a high-concept locale where you can treat yourself to courses like a deconstructed Caesar salad and sugar bubbles for dessert. Keanu, upon making his vaunted cameo, asks the waiter: “Do you have any dishes that play with time? The concept of time?” (Of course, Maximal can oblige.) Later on in the meal, he wears restaurant-provided headphones and weeps as he listens to the screams of the animal he’s consuming. I bet Keanu cries over the cows he eats, is a stan tweet you might be able to find in the weirder corners of Twitter, but it’s not as appealing as it sounds on paper. Which is the genius of Always Be My Maybe: The movie subverts the fantasies that define Keanu fandom (and really, internet fandom at large).
Things don’t get better when the foursome migrate from the restaurant to Keanu’s lavish hotel room: He suggest they play a truth-or-dare-like game in which everyone reveals their deepest, darkest secrets. “I learned it from my stunt coordinator on John Wick,” he says, shamelessly name-dropping and also acting like this kind of game hasn’t been played since the invention of parties. The game begins as an excuse for Keanu Reeves to brag about his own essence (i.e., having a crush on Mother Teresa), but turns sour when Sasha admits that Marcus was her first crush. Mild jealousy quickly devolves into hatred (“I would kill Marcus”), which quickly devolves into a physical confrontation, as Marcus punches Keanu in the face—upon Keanu’s own insistence. The night completely ruined, Sasha and Marcus decide to leave (Marcus’s girlfriend, on the other hand, decides to stay so she can “talk” to Keanu about “her charity”); blood literally streaming from his face, the actor orders the two of them an Uber—specifically an UberPool, perhaps Keanu’s pettiest act of aggression.
And just like that, Keanu Reeves is never seen again. The entire sequence is both hilarious and stunning. Always Be My Maybe is funny before Keanu, and funny after him, but his appearance is a complete spectacle, a surreal (and surprisingly long!) stretch of time that delightfully stands out in an otherwise normal rom-com. It even has a point: For Sasha, Keanu represents a cautionary tale for completely embracing showy artifice over authenticity. She and Marcus hook up in that UberPool—thanks to Keanu, in a way.
While this stage of Keanu’s Hollywood career is rightfully defined by his work in the John Wick franchise—I mean, have you seen those training videos?!—he’s also demonstrated his immense comedic chops and a rare sense of himself. The man who knows kung fu also understands his place in meme culture. He knows that these days he’ll go viral by merely riding a bus. But what’s more, he’s clearly embraced his status as a human meme, which makes the memes all the more funny, as if by making them, you’re in conversation with Keanu himself. (Douchey Keanu Reeves would love a deep thought like this one.)
I wouldn’t give up Keanu shooting motorcyclists on horseback and killing a 7-foot-3 NBA center with a library book for anything in the world. But just as there can be a balance between upscale cuisine and comfort food, Keanu the Action Star and Keanu the Comedy Star don’t have to be mutually exclusive.