Sunday, December 6, 2015

Be excellent to each other


A gloriously dumb comedy with heart to spare and smarter sci-fi underpinnings than it really ought to have, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure shall always remain one of the enduring classics of its era, even when the future the Stallyns promised us seems farther away than ever.

Directed by Stephen Herek
Written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon
With Alex Winter (Bill S. Preston, Esq.), Keanu Reeves (Ted "Theodore" Logan), Terry Camelleri (Napoleon Bonaparte), Dan Shor (Billy the Kid), Tony Steedman (Socrates), Rod Loomis (Sigmund Freud), Al Leong (Genghis Khan), Jane Wiedlin (Jeanne d'Arc), Robert Barron (Abraham Lincoln), Clifford David (Beethoven), Hal Landon Jr. (Capt. Logan), J. Patrick McNamara (Mr. Preston), Amy Stoch (Missy Preston), and George Carlin (Rufus)

Spoiler alert: delightfully auto-spoiling, really, but "high"

Amongst the 1980s film franchises, there are the true greats: Indy; Star Wars; those first six Star Trek movies that feature the original cast and don't suck.  But for a period in the late 1990s, I'm sure I'd have told you that the best of all time—pun probably not totally intended—was the Bill & Ted duology, and I'd have had some solid reasons for my opinion.  So, as gauzy with nostalgia as my eyes must unavoidably remain, it's still awfully pleasant to return to San Dimas CA and discover that all the reasons I loved these movies back then really weren't as stupid as you'd need to expect from a teenager—especially one who wouldn't show too many signs of even average intelligence for a full decade and a half afterward.  (And that's if you're being charitable.)

Not that Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is anything less than blithely stupid, but while keeping with its idiom (its idiom being that of a 1980s high-concept comedy driven almost entirely by stereotypes), it's often stupid in surprisingly smart ways—whether it be in the small things, like a miraculously understated corndog joke involving Sigmund Freud that somehow avoids saying "hey, kids, it's a dick," or in the biggest things, like its construction as one of the single tightest and most interesting time travel narratives this side of freaking Primer.

"What about Back to the Future?" you ask, because Jesus Christ, you would, wouldn't you?

There's almost no need to describe the saga of Bill and Ted, but it's simple enough to do: in the 27th century, the Earth (and, increasingly, the whole universe!) has been rendered a peaceful and technologically-advanced utopia, thanks to the rock music and mellow prophecy of San Dimas' favorite sons, Bill S. Preston, conceiving of "esquire" as an inherited title, and Ted "Theodore" Logan.  Together, of course, they are Wyld Stallyns; but in the present, they are not only callow youths, still languishing in high school, and not just abysmal musicians, either—they're also unfathomably giant morons.  And this is how they find themselves in immediate danger of flunking their history class, and hence failing for the year—which, due to the machinations of Ted's father, would land him in a military academy for dim warriors.  Thus are the stakes established: if the boys don't get an A+ on their final history presentation, the Stallyns will be forcibly disbanded; and if the Stallyns can't make their world-altering music, then the non-heinous society of the future can never come to pass.

Thus, an agent of the Excellent Future, Rufus, travels back to San Dimas, 1988, to help them get intimate with history.  Rufus gives Bill and Ted a time machine disguised as a phone booth—and surprisingly little guidance otherwise, as he leaves them to run amok through the timestream completely unsupervised.  Naturally, this leads to the abduction of a random collection of historical personages, like Napoleon, Socrates, and Joan of Arc, who all react to the mind-bending circumstances in which they find themselves with a calm acceptance that would be far more admirable if they weren't also constructed out of the same mental material as five year olds.  This leads Bill and Ted to undertake a desperate third-act trek across present-day San Dimas to rescue the historical figures from the various low-impact scrapes they've gotten themselves into, finally transporting them to the most elaborately-designed high school presentation ever.

"Low-impact" is the watchword in Excellent Adventure, and both its humor and its brilliance are bound up in it.  To the extent Bill and Ted's adventures in the past ever pose the very remotest physical danger, it's pretty well defused by the round, non-threatening story.  Indeed, this friendly ouroboros is explicitly revealed before Bill and Ted ever set off on their journey in the first place: as they dither about in a Circle K parking lot, they meet their future selves upon their return to the present, still safe and sound.  (Hell, physics itself will stretch itself into the shape of an outright cartoon to spare Bill or Ted any timeline-rupturing violence.  I mean, really, how the heck do you "fall out" of a suit of armor?)

In a bid to give the film some kind of threadbare drama, the rules Rufus lays down for the boys establish a ticking clock—that is, the passage of time in San Dimas is pegged, apparently, to Bill and Ted's own subjective experience.  However, considering that this not only makes no sense, but also doesn't show up in the sequel, the obvious assumption to make is that Rufus is just straight-up lying, because without some kind of stick driving them forward, there was a real chance our heroes would've just kept going back in time to avoid the assignment until they were in their late 30s.  It's not as if it winds up mattering very much: the boys might discover they only have two hours to redeem Napoleon from the siren slides of Waterloo, and to break their historical menagerie out of jail (whilst deploying their time-traveling omnipotence with an easy-going nonchalance), and to do all their chores for Bill's 22 year-old mom, yet when none of this poses the slightest manner of time crunch, you simply can't say with a straight face that Excellent Adventure ever really invites you to soak in the tension of its scenario.

The principal draws, then, are the dual incongruities driving Excellent Adventure's genial laughs: first, watching two dumb Californians maraud through a diet version of the past; then watching their pet historical doofuses maraud through the present with even less aplomb, though without really causing any serious damage.  (Which is not necessarily what you'd expect, given their collection includes not just notorious man-killer Billy the Kid, but Mongolia's god-mode genocidal conqueror, rapist father of half a continent, Genghis fucking Khan himself.  Were Hitler and Mao out when Bill and Ted stopped by?)

I also just realized that there are two characters in this movie named "Bill."  That's kind of weird, right?

The very best of Excellent Adventure's humor is on the margins: Billy the Kid and Socrates tossing a hot pink Nerf football in an out-of-focus background; Rufus' opening narration, describing the future, and highlighting Earth's "excellent waterslides" with the kind of pride one would normally reserve for an arsenal of really accurate and powerful nuclear weapons; Joan of Arc's apparent belief that Bill and Ted are angels.  But, obviously, at the very center of its unique success as a comedy are those two lead performances, representing the kind of serendipitous casting that you don't luck into every day, nor even every decade.  Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves embody their ludicrous stereotypes so perfectly that, firstly, it's kind of insane that this wound up being a starmaking vehicle for Reeves, and, secondly, you rapidly stop questioning the outrageous hyperstylization of the dialogue, which (quite impossibly) seems like an exercise in frank naturalism when it's coming from them.  The only caveat is this: if you haven't heard B&T-speak in a few years, and return to it, it hits you like a slap in the face before you get used to it again—but it's a process that takes about ninety seconds, thanks to how instantly lovable and appealing these two dudes are.  The duo's very baseline is "extremely enjoyable"; they often achieve far more than that, and virtually never dip below.  (Well, one might have hoped that our putative messiahs wouldn't drop an average of one "fag" per film—1.5 if you count evil robot versions—but it's 1989, after all, and one would hope in vain.)

Meanwhile, the rest of the ensemble is worthy enough that I figured I had to transcribe half the IMDB page—and even if we're mostly talking about middling-to-good caricatures that don't tax anybody too hard, there's not a one of them that isn't fun.  But there's one standout, and it's obviously George Carlin.  His gentle cool as Rufus—rather in contrast to his usual, let's say, "animated" persona—is the absolute lynchpin of a film that, if it wants to function at all, needs to be a somewhat vicious parody of Chosen One narratives while also delivering a believable and satisfying Chosen One narrative of its own.

And with Carlin as their fourth wall-breaking narrator, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon's screenplay pulls it off.  I don't know if it's generally recognized how spectacularly weird Excellent Adventure's premise is.  It's pretty immediately clear that Rufus (and the folk of the Excellent Future generally) harbor very, very few illusions about their rock-and-roll deities, yet worship them anyway.  What winds up obscured behind the jokes is how extraordinarily active the future utopia is in creating itself.  Essentially building a pair of random nobodies into prophets, every person involved on the far end of the operation seems not just aware of their own status as four-dimensional puppets, but overjoyed with how well their puppetshow is turning out.  (It's noticeable, too, that no one gives the first shit about unleashing two untrained morons upon the timestream.  Apparently, whatever the hell they might wind up doing to history, they've already done.)  Matheson and Solomon work all of this into the deep background, without anybody noticing, and thanks to their efforts Excellent Adventure edges right into a singularly-amusing work of hard science fiction, becoming something of a meditation on how a civilization that invented time travel (and subsequently discovered that time loops exist) might actually use this knowledge to engineer themselves into perfection.

I haven't mentioned Stephen Herek so far, because if there's one thing that Excellent Adventure is not, it's conspicuously directed.  (Oh, it's handsome enough, but Herek's primary contribution is to keep the pace of the thing up and the mood suitably frivolous; obviously, we can't say the man failed at either key job.)  But then there's the story's anchoring moment, which even if the ridiculous slang and Bill's belly shirt hadn't clued you in, would tell you definitively that this movie was made in the 1980s, only this time I mean it as an unvarnished compliment: it's when Bill and Ted accidentally arrive in the 27th century and confront their own faithful.

Robbie Robb's "In Time" is playing—a lovely song that's nevertheless only barely rock, and hence an unintuitive choice for a future based on a band whose influences range from awesomely shrill hair metal to unlistenably shrill hair metal.  Bill and Ted disembark, clearly awed by the somewhat-impassive leaders of the Excellent Future, who in return are more subtly awed by them.  They find themselves prompted to say something, anything, and in the moment they wind up coining the basic commandments of their religion, which despite their childish phrasing, are kind of hard to argue against since one's the Golden Rule and the other is an injunction to try to enjoy being alive.  Then the people smile, and everybody comes in to see this rare transtemporal appearance, and they all air guitar like fucking dorks, and it's really, genuinely beautiful in every way it could possibly be, particularly in the way that—silly as everyone involved clearly knows it is—Herek films it with the kind of absolute sincerity that's simply unknown in our far-from-excellent future. It's a moment filled to the brim with legitimate wonder, such as even the most self-serious science fiction movies almost never achieve.  If all the rest of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure were just a funny, entertaining riff on time travel, mixed up with a certain half-imagined brand of Southern Californian culture—and I'm not even saying it's not—it's these few minutes right here that make it special, unforgettable, and truly great cinema.  San Dimas High School football rules.

Score:  8/10

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