“History is about to be rewritten by two guys who can’t spell.”
That tagline captured the essential charm of the twisty 1989 time travel comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It didn’t matter if they were stranded in the past or (in the 1991 sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey) trapped Hell, affable idiots Bill S. Preston, esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) remained focused on the promise that the music of their band Wyld Stallyns would someday unite the world in peace and harmony.
31 years after their first adventure, Bill and Ted find themselves sitting in a couple’s therapy session with their wives, “the princesses” Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hayes). In the original film, the princesses were part of the story’s happy ending, brought from medieval England, where they were forced to marry two “royal ugly dudes”, to San Dimas of the present (where they were forced to marry Bill and Ted?). The arrival of the princesses proved that everything was going to be okay, that Bill and Ted have a most excellent future ahead of them.
But in the therapy session, we see the couples beset with ennui. To be sure, this is a comedy, not an Ingmar Bergman film (William Sadler’s The Seventh Seal inspired Death notwithstanding), so Face the Music doesn’t probe deep into midlife dissatisfaction. But Ted’s bushy locks now barely cover the worry wrinkles creasing his forehead. Bill takes a second longer before exploding into his smile. Bill and Ted’s life has been a failure, not an adventure.
Joining with Galaxy Quest director Dean Parisot, Bill and Ted creators Ed Solomon and Chris Mattheson return with a script just as full of time-traveling and interdimensional nonsense as the first two films, but this time with an added sense of pathos. Tired of wasting their life for a future that never arrived, and told to write the world-changing song before reality implodes, the duo visits various older versions of themselves to steal the song they knew they would write. But each successive trip brings them face to face with increasingly unhappy selves, who blame their past selves for mistakes that would ruin their lives. Again, the sequences are fun and silly, but the jokes are based on the inherent sadness of wasted potential.
The film also introduces Ted’s daughter Willa (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Bill’s daughter Thea (Samara Weaving), two musical geniuses who try to help by gathering musical geniuses of years past to join their father’s band. Both are aided by future time-traveler Kelly (Kristen Schall) and pursued by a self-doubting killer robot (Anthony Carrigan).
Reeves continues the Keanussance by giving middle-aged Ted the haggard gait of John Wick and adding anger to his older self. Although Winter has spent more of the past 30 years behind the camera than in front of it, he brings an energy to Bill that counters Ted’s weariness. Despite a few extra lines visible under his white makeup, Sadler feels like he hasn’t missed a beat playing the insecure and ornery Death.
The new additions are a bit more of a mixed bag. Carrigan is delightful as the killer robot, especially as his programming breaks down and his own insecurities come to light. Unfortunately, Weaving and Lundy-Paine, who have been fantastic in other projects, fall a bit short here. Through most of their initial appearances, Lundy-Paine feels like they’re doing a bad impression of Reeves’s Ted while Weaving is only notable for the occasional slips in her American accent. When the two actors are actually asked to do a bit more than impersonate Winter and Reeves, they do settle into nuanced versions of their characters. But there certainly isn’t enough here to make anyone hope for Willa and Thea’s Excellent Adventure.
And there doesn’t need to be. Face the Music functions best as a piece of hopeful critique of nostalgia, not as the setup of a new franchise. Especially in 2020, it’s impossible to hope for the future we wanted in 1989 or 1991. To demand the promise of the early Clinton era is both foolish and insufficient, especially when we see how those bold ideals died in the right-wing anger that leads to the Trump Presidency. But for all their bumbling, Bill and Ted remind us that we can make a better future based on the realities of the present. It may not be what we expected, but it’s enough to build what we want.
Not bad for a couple of guys who don’t know how to spell.