Noted New York Times film critic Janet Maslin once wrote about Keanu Reeves that he “displays considerable discipline and range. He moves easily between the buttoned-down demeanor that suits a police procedural story and the loose-jointed manner of his comic roles.” I have no idea what Janet’s talking about. She must be referring to some other Keanu person that none of us have ever seen before. The Keanu Reeves I know is an actor who, in my opinion, continues to get roles solely because of his looks and, on the whole, he’s gotten lucky throughout his career by picking some iconic films to star in that have extended his career way beyond where it should have ended. If you look at his filmography, it looks like every time Reeves’ career is on the cusp of withering away, he comes out with a huge box office hit. After the success of BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE began to simmer down, Reeves came out with SPEED. That film extended his shelf life for a few more years and just when he was beginning to fade away again, he blew the world away with THE MATRIX. Alfonso Arau’s A WALK IN THE CLOUDS came out in 1995, one year after the release of SPEED. The film wasn’t a huge box office success, but it seems to have found a second life in the home market because just about every woman I know has seen and loved this film.

A WALK IN THE CLOUDS is a romantic fantasy that is based on a 1942 Italian film, FOUR STEPS IN THE CLOUDS. World War II has ended and soldier Paul Sutton (Keanu Reeves) has just returned home to San Francisco to reunite with his wife, Betty (Debra Messing). However, he quickly realizes that the woman he married isn’t the same woman he thought he married so he leaves her. Paul buys a bus ticket to Sacramento and during the ride, he (literally) runs into Victoria Aragon (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), a grad student on her way home to Napa Valley to confront her traditionalist Mexican-American family that she is pregnant. Victoria confesses her worries to Paul and sympathizing with her, Paul agrees to pose before her family as her husband for one day to cover up the real story behind her pregnancy. The deal they strike is that Paul will leave her the next day and continue on with his life. Paul finally meets Victoria’s wealthy family, which owns a vineyard in Napa. Victoria’s father (Giancarlo Giannini) cannot stand Paul for the fact that he doesn’t come from money, he’s white, and he’s an orphan. However, Paul soon wins over the family and, more importantly, he finds himself falling in love with Victoria.

Alfonso Arau gained recognition as a director a few years before this film with the critically acclaimed LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE. That was another romantic fantasy that became one of Mexico’s highest-ever grossing movies. NOTE: Arau is also very well known for being an actor and has been in a few movies most of you here have probably seen (i.e. THE WILD BUNCH, ROMANCING THE STONE and THREE AMIGOS). With A WALK IN THE CLOUDS, I’m guessing Arau wanted to harken back to the old Hollywood romantic dramas he grew up with during the 40s and 50s. The story to this film contains the innocence and simplicity of the movies from that era. A soldier back from the war falls in love with a pretty girl amidst the beautiful Napa Valley. It’s the sort of movie William Wyler or Frank Capra would make.

However, what ends up making A WALK IN THE CLOUDS a failed mess (aside from casting Keanu Reeves for its romantic lead) is that its style no longer appeals to more sophisticated movie audiences and the filmmakers were apparently not clever enough to pull a Quentin Tarantino and mold something new out of the familiar. The story is slightly one grade above a trashy romantic paperback with its clichéd setup between the two lovers and the too-obvious path that will lead the two characters to be together. I’ve gone on far enough as to why I think Keanu Reeves is a bad actor and assigning him to a poorly developed character renders his character even less appealing. As to Victoria, she is so two-dimensional and melodramatic that you can’t help but hope that her father will discover she was knocked up by her college professor and disown her just to add some variety and interest to her character and her situation.

I actually did not mind too much the setup of the story where Paul offers to act like Victoria’s husband for one day in front of her family. Unless you were born under a rock and have never seen a single romantic movie in your life, you know from the first frame of the film that these two characters will end up together. However, the setup had a lot of potential to create both comedic and suspenseful situations. The simple fact that Paul is posing as her husband could have created funny situations where the two main characters must act in certain ways in front of the family that they otherwise would not. There is a tiny bit of that in the film (where Paul is “forced” to sleep in the same bed with Victoria so her father won’t suspect anything), but the potential is not explored as fully as it could have been. What’s more, because you know Paul and Victoria will eventually end up together, the filmmakers could have set up Paul’s many attempts to leave Victoria in such a way that would make the audience wonder whether Paul would really leave and never come back. Instead, Paul’s efforts to leave are feeble attempts that make it look like Paul never really intended to leave Victoria.

I don’t remember whether this was something common in movies made in the 1990s, but there is not a single shot in A WALK IN THE CLOUDS that isn’t filterized to the extreme. The sky is perpetually orange and the whole film looks like it was inspired by Thomas Kinkade. I’m pretty sure this was a popular and innovative look for studio films back then, but looking at it now just reminds me of soft porn and Hallmark/Lifetime movies. On a sidenote, some of you who have never been to Napa Valley might wonder if the film’s depiction of the place is accurate. Amazingly, it is (except for the permanent Thomas Kinkade sky), but you would have to drive up into the hills and find the private vineyards to see anything like what you see here.

A WALK IN THE CLOUDS has some bright moments. Two to be exact. One is the late and insanely talented Maurice Jarre’s (DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and WITNESS) memorable film score and the other is the performance by the late and equally talented Anthony Quinn. The presence of the music and Quinn prevent the film from becoming completely forgettable.

I’m not a grumpy and cynical person who only enjoys watching indie films that deal with dark and depressing subject matters. I’m a romantic at heart and my favorite movies tends to be those that are uplifting and inspiring. After all, I grew up during the emergence of the Hollywood blockbuster era of the 1980s where every film seemed to be either directed or produced by Steven Spielberg. A WALK IN THE CLOUDS could have been a sweeping romantic epic that took advantage of its lush visuals, romantic score, and beautiful setting. Unfortunately, it suffocates you with its melodrama and forced climax to become yet another Keanu Reeves misfire.

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