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In THUMBSUCKER, Keanu Reeves is (finally) in on the joke

Keanu Reeves in THUMBSUCKER

Piecing apart the broader coming-of-age themes in Mike Mills’ THUMBSUCKER may not be a fruitful exercise. I’m not saying the film isn’t worth discussion or parsing; not at all. There’s just a more diplomatic (read: cute) way of celebrating the director’s feature-length debut. Like this: Keanu Reeves plays a New Age orthodontist who, for a change, is in on the joke. Doesn’t that already sound more intriguing?

The film has a slew of amazing turns by the likes of Tilda Swinton, who plays a free-spirited mother on the lookout for any and all semi-fantastic adventures to spice up her domesticated life. Such as applying for a job at a celebrity rehab center just to be closer to her favorite small-screen crush, played Benjamin Bratt — who himself gives us his best effort outside of a failed rom-com in recent history.

There’s also Vince Vaughn, channeling his taste for absurd humor in practical situations, as the debate coach who pushes Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci), our brilliantly sensitive thumbsucker of epic proportion, out of his comfort zone and into the adrenaline-filled world of high school debating. We might as well shout out Vicent D’Onofrio for his complicated portrayal of a father still not at peace with his fall from grace, a promising jock who never met his potential. It’s kind of a lighthearted downer. You know, what we’ve come to expect from films that celebrate the underdog, the wet blanket in all of us.

Mills endeavors to juggle the tangential elements into a cohesive and quirk-riddled reality. But la grande folie wouldn’t come together were it not for the philosophically driven, athletically inclined tooth whisperer, as it were. I’ve heard every joke under the sun about Keanu Reeves’ acting range. From the pubescent charms of BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE to the flat-tone, breathy lines in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, to — my favorite(!) — his REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE-inspired monologue for Paul Abdul’s “Rush Rush” video (starting at 3:10).

Reeves is often dismissed as the pretty-boy face of Generation X, one who provides the surface-level sincerity we’ve come to expect from techno-dystopias like THE MATRIX trilogy (and inspiring innumerable paranoid hackers, but whatever). So we rarely get the chance to see our leading man in a role where his listless charm and quixotic ways are brought fully to bear in an ironic context. Which is sad: Here is a man whose brand is ripe for roles with character duality. We’re not only entertained by THUMBSUCKER’s orthodontist on a vision quest who quotes Yoda; we’re dying that he’s played by Keanu Reeves.

Be sure to catch THUMBSUCKER this Saturday, October 6, at 8P.