Movies

The New Bill & Ted Embodies the Gen X Adventure

The decades-in-the-making Face the Music is goofy, scattershot, and curiously moving.

Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter stand in front of a gong and stretch out their hands in a scene from in Bill & Ted Face the Music
Orion Pictures

In the long, hot, and most heinous summer of 2020, you cling to whatever scraps of awesomeness you can find. Bill & Ted Face the Music, a 31-years-later sequel to the 1989 sleeper hit Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its 1991 follow-up, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (and available Friday on video on demand), may be as pure an example as exists of the concept of the “fan service” movie, but as a member of the precise demographic whose engine it aims to tune, I won’t be heard complaining. Like the first two movies, this new chapter is goofy and scattershot, hanging a barely coherent sci-fi story on the sturdy peg of the audience’s abiding affection for its irresistible leads. But that affection has ripened and deepened with time, along with the real-life friendships of both the actors who play them and the screenwriters of all three movies, Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson.

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As characters, William S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) share DNA with the slightly older Jeff Spicoli, Sean Penn’s perpetually stoned surfer in the 1982 teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and the slightly younger Beavis and Butt-head, the brainless MTV buddies animated by Mike Judge in the 1990s. And as it happens, the night after the first movie’s premiere in February 1989, Saturday Night Live introduced a new pair of similarly dimwitted characters: Dana Carvey and Mike Myers as Wayne and Garth, hosts of the vapid public access show Wayne’s World. The influence in both directions was probably unintentional—as Winter said in a recent and charming interview, “I think the zeitgeist barfed all this stuff up at the same time”—but in the pantheon of Gen X airheads, Bill and Ted occupy a unique place. Their verbal and gestural lingo—the air-guitar windmills, the division of the universe into twin poles of excellence and bogosity, the shared utterances of the cosmic interjection “whoa”—has persisted into the next generation and become part of our common language. To talk about Bill and Ted is to quote Bill and Ted, which is to say, to become them.

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Thirty-one years after they first traveled through time together to kidnap historical figures for their high school history final, Bill and Ted are still living in San Dimas, California, still married to the “princess babes” they rescued from 15th century England, still rocking out daily in their neighboring suburban garages, and still serenely untroubled by anything so bogus as mental exertion. They have at last learned to play the ax-shaped guitars gifted to them by Rufus (George Carlin) at the end of the first movie: Indeed, they’ve become virtuosos on a plethora of instruments, from bagpipe to theremin. But in the decades since their band, the Wyld Stallyns, enjoyed a brief blaze of glory in the early ’90s, Bill and Ted have failed to fulfill the destiny prophesied by Carlin’s time-traveling guru: that they would one day write a song that would save the world and bring peace to all humanity. They are instead reduced to playing open mics at underpopulated hotel bars and boring wedding guests with such prog anthems as “That Which Binds Us Through Time: The Chemical, Physical, and Biological Nature of Love; an Exploration of the Meaning of Meaning, Part 1.”

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Bill and Ted have also become dads and, in a sign of their enduring friendship, have named their daughters, now in their early 20s, after each other. Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Theodora “Thea” Preston (Samara Weaving), having grown up in the shadow of their almost-famous fathers, have adopted both their “dude”-laced speech patterns and obsession with righteous tunes of all kinds—not just the guitar-shredding rock ’n’ roll of their dads’ generation but jazz, hip-hop, and what in the Wyld Stallyns’ heyday used to be known as “world music.” (The actors playing the daughters don’t get a lot to do, but Weaving in particular has nailed Ted’s signature walk, a long-armed loping bounce, and his placidly vacant grin.) The girls’ musical knowledge will serve them well in an agreeable if underwhelming subplot that has them traveling through time to gather an all-star band of transhistorical music greats—Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Mozart—to sit in on the universe-saving song that they remain convinced their dads are fated to write.

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The problem is that, even after being urgently summoned to the year 2720 by a messenger from the future (Kristen Schaal) who appears on their cul-de-sac one day in an egg-shaped pod, Bill and Ted have not as of yet written that song, and after three decades of cheerful mediocrity, they no longer know if they have it in them. Informed by Rufus’ imperious widow (Holland Taylor) that they have only 78 minutes to compose the ultimate banger, the friends have no choice but to climb back into the phone booth–shaped time machine that took them on their first two journeys, travel into a future in which they’ve already written the song, and bring it back to the present day.

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The overlapping time loops and concentric logic holes that ensue would challenge even Bruce Willis’ character in Looper to illustrate them with diner straws. In some future realities, Bill and Ted are pretentious English-accented rock stars; in others, they’re divorced alcoholics gone to seed. In no possible universe do the pair appear to have gotten around to writing the magic song, even when they venture, Dante-like, into the underworld, where they’re joined by the Grim Reaper (played once more by Bogus Journey scene-stealer William Sadler) and a pathetically insecure robot named Dennis (Anthony Carrigan).

I’ll leave the plot summary there, except to say that, though the movie deliberately frames the musical result of all this time-hopping as underachieving, the universe-saving song has a bouncy hook I’ve been humming throughout the writing of this review. But like its predecessors, Bill & Ted Face the Music is less about the destination than the bodaciousness of the journey. Whether they’re callow teens in the Valley or nonagenarians lying side by side in an old folks’ home, Bill and Ted belong together, eternally bonded by their Zen-like stupidity and the tireless joy they take in living, being excellent to each other, and partying on.

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In its way, this closing chapter of the Bill & Ted trilogy is an allegory for the status of Gen Xers in the dystopic landscape of 2020. They—for some of us, we—are now middle-aged slackers still waiting for our one grand moment of apotheosis, convinced the song we were put on Earth to write is yet to come even as the culture around us moves on. There are moments in the first two films that now play as dated and cringey (though many fewer such moments than in, say, your average John Hughes film): For example, a scene in Excellent Adventure when Bill and Ted share an impulsive hug then abruptly break apart, each calling the other a “fag.” Similarly, for all its efforts to be more inclusive by adding in a pair of younger female buddies, Face the Music makes a few tin-eared gestures at representation—most egregiously when, in the history-spanning supergroup brought together by Bill and Ted’s daughters, the drummer is a Black woman from prehistoric times. I suppose making the “caveperson” character a white man would have been problematic in its own way, but the sight of a woman of color wearing animal skins while drumming with a bone raises a specter of condescension and exoticism the writers can’t have intended.

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Still, missteps and all, this movie’s heart remains in the right place. Its stars, who first met in the process of auditioning for Excellent Adventure, have been close friends ever since, and their shared sense of humor and love for the characters shines through even in the weaker moments. Reeves in particular never makes a comic misstep; he’s funny less for the lines he speaks than for his thoroughgoing physical incarnation of a character who’s at least 50 percent Golden Retriever, ready to greet every new challenge with the same guileless enthusiasm, his default expression a dopey smile. And while Winter—who in the intervening decades has mostly left acting behind for a directing career—may not have Reeves’ gift for physical comedy, he deftly delivers a few of the movie’s best lines, including an exasperated tell-off of Dennis the clingy robot that I had to rewind several times so I could laugh at it some more. In one early scene Billie, reassuring her dad that he’s still got it, tells him his theremin playing is “most luminous.” It’s an assessment of the whole franchise that sympathetic viewers—and really, do Bill and Ted have any other kind?—are likely to share.

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