'Bill & Ted Face the Music' Review: A Mostly Excellent, Much-Needed Return
Can Bill and Ted exist in 2020? That’s the big question attached to Bill & Ted Face the Music, the long-awaited third film in the Bill & Ted series which comes nearly 30 years after Bogus Journey. The two lovable dimwitted slackers who found themselves unlikely saviors of the world seemed like a wonderful relic of the ’90s, products of the kind of absurd surrealism that could only come from the minds of people who were very young, very silly, or very high. The world has drastically changed since the ’90s, and not much for the better. It feels like the time for silliness, for that kind of feel-good comedy that Bill & Ted wore on its tattered, undersized sleeves, has passed. But the truth is, this movie could not have come at a better time.
Bill & Ted Face the Music offers the kind of wholesome, wide-eyed comedy that we desperately need now more than ever. The thing is, the original Bill & Ted movies came during the ’80s and ’90s, when ironic detachment was at its height and the kind of goofy optimism that Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey peddled was scoffed at. Bill & Ted were a direct refutation of that cynicism, and they return again to our screens to help us through one of our most deeply cynical times yet.
Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves slip into their roles as Bill and Ted as if they were stepping into a second skin – albeit skin that is a little saggier and doesn’t look as good under a crop top. But it’s unmistakable that these two are the Bill and Ted we knew and loved from Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey, for better or for worse. And it’s only for worse for Bill and Ted themselves, who are introduced as a washed-up pair of musicians, never having lived up to the potential that Rufus (the late George Carlin, appearing in stock footage in a sweet nod) had promised they would. In a zippy bit of exposition narrated by their daughters (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine) that is structured like a VH1 “Where Are They Now?” special, we learn that after the “world-saving” concert at the end of Bogus Journey, humanity had…gone back to normal. The Wyld Stallyns broke up with their killer bassist Death, and over the years, Bill and Ted had resorted to playing open mics and the wedding of Ted’s younger brother (who, in a hilarious twist of fate, is now marrying Missy).
Yes, midlife crises come for us all, even a perpetually cheerful duo like Bill and Ted. But the movie doesn’t linger much on any added pathos brought on by their failures to write a song that will unite humanity. Writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson (who have written all three Bill & Ted movies) set up a fascinating continuation of the ideas introduced in Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey — where the two characters were aimless teens with their whole lives ahead of them, who could be fated to save the world, because why not? But rather than chew on the dramatic meat that comes with the idea of failing to have achieve anything substantial with their lives (a subject that may ring a little too true for the audiences who first watched the first two films as similarly aimless teenagers), Face the Music uses Bill and Ted’s midlife crises to launch the plot: they have 78 minutes to write the song that will save humanity, or reality as they know it will crumble. And being Bill and Ted, the duo decide that the best course of action is to time travel a few years in the future and steal the song from themselves. Almost immediately, the film throws us into a high-stakes adventure that doesn’t have time to ponder Bill and Ted’s failings. Rather than face the drama, Face the Music will crack the joke, then move on to the next one.
But you can’t fault the Bill & Ted movies for not being particularly deep — in fact, that’s arguably their biggest appeal. In that vein, Face the Music more than maintains the legacy of its predecessors, throwing us into a nonstop adventure as Bill and Ted skip through time, meeting future versions of themselves that become increasingly disappointing and increasingly dark (but results in some great gags, like Reeves with a bad goatee and bandana, and the pair of them in prison sporting buff physiques and misspelled “Be Excellent” tattoos). It’s part bonkers twist on It’s a Wonderful Life, part Excellent Adventure retread through the subplot with Bill and Ted’s daughters, who spot their dads (who they adore and would never admit to be disappointments) being taken to the future in a sleek time-travel pod by Rufus’ daughter Kelly (a beleaguered Kristen Schaal). Convinced that their dads are in danger, they persuade Kelly to teach them how to use the time machine so that they can collect history’s greatest musicians to help their dads compose The Song. There are some funny moments in Thea (Weaving) and Billie’s (Lundy-Paine) adventures, which include a jaunt to the 1920s to impress Louis Armstrong with a smartphone and a music battle between Jimi Hendrix and Mozart, but for the most part, their subplot plays like a more straightforward version of Excellent Adventure, with Weaving and Lundy-Paine basically playing more musically attuned versions of their dads.
Okay, so the nostalgia-baiting toward Excellent Adventure is expected, but what about the gonzo weirdness of Bogus Journey? Don’t worry, it kicks in, mostly in the second half of the film, which is finally where the comedy starts crackling thanks to the introduction of a killer cyborg, played by a scene-stealing Anthony Carrigan. Sent from the future by the Great Leader (Holland Taylor) to kill Bill and Ted based on a new theory about the event that will save reality, the cyborg is a ruthless, intimidating machine that kills dozens of people….then feels bad about it. Like Death in Bogus Journey, the cyborg — who we learn is named Dennis — is a hysterical spoof of a genre hallmark, an antagonist rendered an insecure wreck who only wants to fit in with the cool kids. Every line out of Carrigan’s mouth is gut-bustingly hilarious, which he delivers with all the guilelessness of the nerdy kid at school who accidentally bumped into you and dropped all his books (which is kind of amazing considering the amount of prosthetics that the Barry breakout is under). I just want a whole movie out of Dennis following Bill and Ted around Hell, pleading for validation.
But speaking of Death, William Sadler is obviously having a blast back under the black robes and white make-up, reunited with Bill and Ted after having split over creative differences (Death went solo with an “all-bass album,” and flopped). Seeing the trio reunited is like being enveloped by a cozy blanket, and for all Face the Music‘s faults (the Kid Cudi cameo does not work and Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes‘ princesses are kind of disposable), it manages to capture that coziness for its entire runtime. While director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) has a decidedly more measured approach to Bill & Ted than Stephen Herek’s shaggy goofiness of Excellent Adventure and Pete Hewitt’s bizarro leaps of Bogus Journey, he manages to relay that silly, good-natured tone of the series, with a hefty helping of laughs.
Face the Music is just so overwhelmingly nice. It’s a cheesy, dopey, pure comedy about people who care a lot — maybe about trivial things, maybe about the wrong things — but boy do they care. And they just want to share their joy for the things they care about (namely rock ‘n’ roll) to the world. So sit back, don’t think too much, and party on, dudes.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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