If the American Film Institute runs out of ideas to the point that they choose to make a list of 100 Most Harmless Movies, I have to think that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure would be high on the list. Is anyone, ever, going to complain with a pair of metalheads using time travel to shape up and study their history, while simultaneously improving their ability to stay metal? If so, I hope to never meet that person. This is a movie which is dated, goofy, and has more ham than a Christmas dinner, but I loved it as a kid and even now it still puts a smile on my face.
Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter)* and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) are going to fail history and thus flunk out of high school. Our perfect future society can’t allow that to happen, so they send Rufus (George Carlin) back via time machine to help them out. Bill and Ted bounce throughout time, collecting famous historical personages to help them pass. That’s your movie; if it seems simple that’s because it was a simpler time, one in which Wayne’s World didn’t even exist yet.**
Much like Wayne and Garth did, this movie tries its best to wink at the adult music lovers in the audience. The late Clarence “Big Man” Cleamons of the E Street Band joins Fee Waybill and Martha Davis as “The Three Most Important People in the World”***; Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos plays Joan of Arc. The problem is that while Bill and Ted may worship at the altars of Led Zepplin, Iron Maiden, and Van Halen, the movie itself went for some much cheaper equivalents. The biggest name on the soundtrack is probably Extreme, who were still a year or two away from their soft-rock one-hit wonder, “More Than Words.”
Now, remember, Reeves was 23 at the time of filming; his IMDb page lists four features and a bunch of TV movies under his belt by the time he played Ted Logan. Winter, much the same. So the doofus-ness of Bill and Ted is absolutely a collection of choices that they made as actors. They’re hamming it up on purpose, because Bill and Ted are those guys who are cluelessly optimistic that they basically ham everything up in real life. Growing up, I knew a lot of guys like that in school, which is probably why I liked this movie so much as a kid.
Director Stephen Herek’s filmography is the very pinnacle of mediocrity (he was coming off of Critters would parlay Bill and Ted’s success into Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead and The Mighty Ducks), and this movie shows why. The plot has bad pacing; several scenes early on drag painfully long, and the whole “Ted’s dead!” fake-out just seems lame and forced. The action sequences are mildly well-done; I remember loving them as a kid but I mostly shrugged through them this week.
As an adult who now thinks about actors as people doing jobs and paying rent, I appreciated the motley crew of historical figures in a whole new way. Some guy actually took a paycheck to dress up as Sigmund Freud and get called a “geek” by a couple of SoCal mall hotties; that’s show business. Also, this was the first time that I noticed Genghis Khan was played by Al Leong, a.k.a. That Chinese Guy With The Beard Who Was In That Thing, a.k.a. The Torture Guy From Lethal Weapon. Remember, someone actually went up to Leong before the cameras started rolling and said, “now, in this scene we need you to look like you might take some shit out of the toilet.” It’s a living.
Most of all, as an adult I was physically pained to see the late George Carlin in this movie. When I saw it with my dad all those years ago, he said that he was surprised to see Carlin in the movie because “that’s not his thing”; being a kid who had never heard of Carlin, I didn’t understand. Now, I get it. You could have gotten literally anyone to play the straight-man role of Rufus, so getting one of the great R-rated comedians to do it seems strangely perverse. Carlin’s not funny in the role, but that’s not the problem; the problem is that the script doesn’t give Rufus hardly any jokes. I can only assume that, like Krusty the Klown, Carlin was not made of stone when they backed the dump truck full of money up to his house.
I didn’t laugh my way through Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure this time around. I laughed a little, because this movie has some legitimately good jokes, but not a lot of them. Most of the time I just had that nostalgic smile on my face, remembering fondly something which I hadn’t seen in years. I watched it as a critic, because that’s the way I think, but even the bad stuff isn’t too awful. Even the homophobic joke seems innocent somehow, like it came from a world where hate crimes would never and could never happen. That’s what a nice, harmless movie can do.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*I saw this movie in the theaters when I was 12. I had no idea what “esquire” even meant, but that joke still cracked me up. If you can’t laugh at that today, maybe you shouldn’t revisit this movie.
**According to Wikipedia, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was shot in 1987, but got delayed for two years until 1989 when Dino di Laurentiis’ production company went broke. The first “Wayne’s World” sketch appeared in 1988.
***Wikipedia claims that Waybill and Davis are pioneers in the L.A. punk and New Wave scenes. Guess I’m taking their word for it.