Keanu Reeves Hilariously Parodied Himself in This Movie
Back in 2005, Keanu Reeves slyly delivered one of the most delightful and overlooked performances of his career for the dramedy Thumbsucker. In Mike Mills’ coming-of-age picture, Reeves channels the previous two decades of his career—as well as his public persona—to wade in the waters of self-parody. Thumbsucker finds him in the role of Dr. Perry Lyman, a spacey New Age orthodontist who utilizes some untraditional philosophies to help a teenage boy (Lou Taylor Pucci) overcome his thumb-sucking habit.
Keanu Reeves is one of those actors that’s so regularly been in memorable roles since the beginning of his career that it’s nearly impossible to not be a fan of the guy. By the time Thumbsucker came around, he’d already made a household name for himself, having shown up in depressing, existential teenage dramas (River’s Edge), dopey comedies (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), and high-caliber action pictures (Speed, The Matrix, the list goes on). Even more than that, though, is the man himself: a lovable, humble, and often endearingly eccentric figure who’s as captivating to watch out of character as he is while deep in a role. Thumbsucker takes advantage of this, giving Reeves a swing at a tongue-in-cheek bit that feels reflective and, of course, deeply Reevesian.
In ‘Thumbsucker,’ Keanu Reeves’ Role Parodies the Real-Life Actor
Reeves’ small-but-vital role in Thumbsucker is one that works on multiple levels. For one, the character is lovable as hell. He’s soft-spoken, in touch with his spirituality, and he often takes to muttering philosophical musings. He competes in bicycle races and running 6ks. He loves seeing his patients, and when he greets them, it sounds entirely sincere. “To what do I deserve this honor?” he says, adorably, to Justin (Pucci) when the boy unexpectedly shows up at his office. It sounds exactly like something you’d hear Reeves hear in a candid, off-the-cuff meeting with a fan.
On another level, though, Reeves’ appearance in Thumbsucker works so well because of how perfectly the role fits the actor. It’s like a suit tailored just for him. Dr. Lyman feels like an alternate universe Reeves, one that, if this whole movie star business didn’t work out, you could find in some orthodontics office in a Portland suburb. Thumbsucker, Mike Mills, and Reeves all know this. They’re conscious of the striking parallels between the actor and the subject, and they lean into the stereotypical image Reeves had made for himself through the 90s and into the new millennium. All of the previously mentioned traits of Dr. Lyman can essentially be said of Reeves—trade marathoning in for jiu jitsu, and you’ve got it nailed.
Looking in retrospect also lends authority to the role. Lyman drops pearls of wisdom throughout the movie in his typical laid back delivery that’s 100% real-life Keanu Reeves. Near the end of the film, Lyman reflects on a recent change of philosophy: “the trick…is living without an answer,” he says. “…I think,” he adds, with impeccable comic timing. In recent years the internet has become full of clips of the beloved actor essentially doing the same in interviews. Just watch him talk to Stephen Colbert about what happens after death. Or to Drew Barrymore on the subject of love. He’s thoughtful and well-spoken, but he’s self-aware, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Lyman spends his screentime doing strange and eccentric things. He talks of spirit animals, and helps Justin find his during an impromptu hypnosis session. In an attempt to help Justin stop his habitual thumbsucking, Lyman hypnotizes the boy into thinking his thumb tastes like Echinacea. The orthodontic appointments in Lyman’s office are soundtracked by overhead speakers playing rushing water sounds, flutes, and the kind of ambient music you’d hear at a luxurious spa or on a 3-hour meditation Youtube playlist. His receptionist refers to him on an informal, first name basis (“Perry is ready for you,” he tells Justin) in a way that recalls Keanu Reeves’ own humility. It all works because it makes for a lovable character, but it works even better because it shows one of modern cinema’s most iconic performers having a blast poking fun at himself.
Amongst a Star-Studded Cast, Keanu Reeves Is ‘Thumbsucker’s Best Asset
Perhaps Thumbscrews’ greatest flaw is the infrequency with which Keanu Reeves shows up. Like any of the finest little indie sleeper hits, Thumbsucker has a stacked cast list of stars playing quirky parts: Tilda Swinton extracts a raw vulnerability from the role of Justin’s mother—”Audrey”—a daydreaming nurse with an obsession with a popular television actor. Vincent D’Onofrio steps in as an emotionally-distant but well-intended father figure who insists on his children calling him by his first name because the word dad makes him feel old. Even Vince Vaughan shows up as an all-business-no-fun coach of Justin’s debate team. It’s Reeves, though, that shines brightest, and by the time the credits roll, it’s unlikely that you won’t be wishing for more Dr. Lyman.
For a film centered around (and titled after) a teenage protagonist, a lot of time is spent with the adults, who are as crucial to the story as the boy himself. Justin’s parents reflect Justin’s use of thumbsucking as a coping mechanism through their own devices to deal with their emotions: Audrey through her perpetual fantasies of meeting her crush and Mike through his broken dreams of athleticism. Lyman, on the other hand, is a sort of New Age sage that offers his cryptic wisdom to Justin while seemingly having his own life figured out. He shrugs off Justin’s habit as something that’s undeservedly taboo: it’s merely a psychological replacement for the mammalian need to be breastfed during infancy. By the movie’s end, he finds that even he, to some degree, had it all wrong. He doesn’t know who he was trying to be, and that’s ok.
Oddball movies like Thumbsucker work best when the dialogue is tight and the lead actors play characters that practically leap off the screen. This movie is full of them, but it’s Reeves—and Dr. Lyman—who are the film’s greatest asset. Watching Thumbsucker in a post-John Wick world, while Reeves is living the lavish life of being a universally beloved figure, gives the movie some extra charm. Now that we’ve got plenty more meme-able Keanu Reeves moments to comb through online, we can see that he was, and is, in on the joke, and he’s pretty goddamn respectable for that.