Monday, August 31, 2020

God gave rock 'n' roll to you


Directed by Dean Parisot
Written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon

Spoiler alert: moderate

Okay.  Obviously, I recognize that I'm in such a small minority on this that I can only speak for myself, but for me the Bill & Ted duology—comprising Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure from 1989 and its sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, from 1991—isn't just a pair of fun crypto-stoner comedies to be recalled with nostalgic fondness.  Together, they're a lot more personally important than that; in Bogus Journey's case, we have probably my favorite comedy of all time, and to the extent I might be willing to settle down and agree that Excellent Adventure is mostly just a goofy lark, and therefore nothing to get too attached to, that first sequel is downright criminally underrated.  It mixes half a dozen high concepts without them feeling at war with one another; it fills itself with smart film references that are so expertly woven into its fabric that they don't even necessarily come off as "film references" while you're watching it; it's so shockingly well-crafted as a piece of cinema that it's frankly difficult to understand why Peter Hewitt's second highest-profile movie is Garfield.  Bogus Journey was a sequel miracle, proving itself capable of boundless reinvention while still staying entirely true to—hell, even sharpening!—both the fundamental logic of the first film and the all-time-iconic duo at the heart of both.  And then it ends, with the utopian apocalypse that was promised.  It concludes, that is to say.  Like its fellow 1991 time-travel masterpiece Terminator 2, Bogus Journey held absolutely nothing back, leaving its franchise with no real possibilities to move forward without effectively betraying what it had already accomplished.

Which is not to imply that Bill & Ted Face the Music is just some cash-grab; if someone wanted to grab cash, they could probably find a better way than continuing the story of a middlingly-popular film series from 1991.  Let's assume, because I think it's more likely anyway, that series creators and Face the Music screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon are as earnest as they present themselves, and that the long-gestating second sequel that they've been developing with Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves for as long as anybody can now remember was born more of their desire to re-open the Bill & Ted universe to explore it from their new vantage point as middle-aged men—though it pays to remember that, in its way, this is perhaps even more insidious than a cash grab would be.  In an era where legacy sequels have been, by and large, a force for good, Face the Music still had a higher bar than most.  Not the bar, "be better than Bogus Journey," which I never entertained as a possibility, but the bar, "justify your right to exist at all when the prior film and the march of three decades says you shouldn't."  And I don't know if it does that, honestly.  Face the Music is a betrayal, though I guess it's at least one with its heart mostly in the right place.

If you ever questioned how Face the Music would continue Bogus Journey's story while respecting it—and, given the irritatingly uniform complexion of positive reviews that don't indicate their authors ever watched Bogus Journey through to the end, you probably didn't—the answer is a hard retcon that is impressive in just how bluntly and inelegantly it overwrites the last film's closing montage.  So: Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Winter) and Ted "Theodore" Logan (Reeves), after achieving a much more modest level of stardom thirty years ago during that not-so-fateful Battle of the Bands, have since pissed it all away on increasingly try-hard efforts to make the songs that would unite the world, and their cultural cachet's dwindled to the point that they are now in the position of debuting such songs at the weddings of their family members.  And while I appreciate that some level of effort was put into making "That Which Binds Us Through Time: The Chemical, Physical and Biological Nature of Love; Exploring the Meaning of Meaning, Part I" such a wild and abstruse piece of avant-garde nonsense while still being kinda oddly-listenable, clearly the Wyld Stallyns' best days are behind them.  This is in no small part because their marriages to the Princesses (Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes) are collapsing in the face of their ongoing mediocrity and mutual co-dependency.  Thus is established a "character arc" for the duo that somewhat misunderstands their core appeal, and in any event is "resolved" by the employment of a personal pronoun.

It's at this point the screenplay starts crumbling and never really stops even if the pace of its crumbling slows down, as Bill and Ted are invited into the sub-sitcom scenario of marriage counseling by wives who get shunted off as soon as possible, and while it's obviously too much to insist that the Bill & Ted flicks have ever had much time for the babes, Face the Music is the first one to actively deny them their identity, repositioning them as middle-aged hausfraus dissatisfied with their manchild husbands (but hey, not too middle-aged; and out of the several returning characters here, it's Joanna and Elizabeth who get recast).  This awkwardly sidesteps the fact that they're supposed to be as big a part of the Stallyns as Bill and Ted are, and would have every reason to pursue the dream alongside them.  But they don't, and Bill and Ted have been so thoroughly dismissed by society and their friends that I half-expected their dismal reality to turn out to be a riff on the last third of The Last Temptation of Christ (or, ahem, The Matrix), with a universal evil playing one last card before conceding defeat, and given the riffing on The Seventh Seal, A Matter of Life and Death, and myth and religion generally in the last film, I wouldn't have put this past Matheson and Solomon's ambition.  But that would have required them to have had any new ideas, and Face the Music doesn't have one of those in its head.

Things become rather more straightforward and deflatingly Star Trekky: out of the blue arrives Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of Rufus and agent of the Excellent Future like her father before her, and she's come to help Bill and Ted put things back on the right track, a mission that's taken on great urgency because their failure to create the utopia has caused a temporal paradox that's wrecking its way through all reality.  Bill and Ted are given one last chance to complete their epochal task, but if they don't play the song by 7:17 PM tonight, the universe itself will give up and end in frustration.  Staggered by the responsibility, they devise a scheme to evade it, by time traveling to the future, when they've already written the song, and borrowing it from themselves, not quite aware that this means they'll be running into a succession of even-more-abject Bill and Teds who still haven't written the song.  Meanwhile, their adult loser/carbon copy daughters Thea Preston (Samara Weaving) and Billie Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine) become apprised of this situation and determine to help, getting ahold of a time machine of their own to put together the greatest band in history, including Jimi Hendrix (DazMann Still), because the greatest band in history would obviously have three lead guitarists, ancient Chinese flautist Ling Lun (Sharon Gee), because apparently the greatest band in history is Jethro Tull, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Daniel Dorr), because somebody's gotta replace Elizabeth, I guess, even if you'd think Ludwig van Beethoven would make more sense.  Kid Cudi (himself) also joins the group, because he is evidently a person who exists; his primary purpose is to "humorously" and "incongruously" spout Brannon Braga-style technobabble about multiverses.

Which brings us to one of the other ways Face the Music just cops the fuck out: leaving aside that the current vogue for shoving the many worlds hypothesis into every single science fiction story is starting to wear extremely thin, maybe the biggest disappointment of Face the Music is how utterly it repudiates its predecessors' extraordinarily strong time-travel logic, which made for two whole movies about how graceful a consistent time loop can get, and emphasized the duology's comforting, optimistic themes of "everything will be all right" so forcefully that the first one has a whole musical interlude that says this out loud.  This one certainly has little use for gracefulness in its time travel fiction.

The same kind of laziness attends "T" and "B" generally.  Matheson and Solomon struck upon the hugely radical notion of "making them girls" (and whatever their biological sex was implied to be, it's neat to think Little Bill and Little Ted were portrayed by female infants in Bogus Journey), and they leave it pretty much at just that, conceiving of them as XX clones of their fathers, which is another small way it dismisses the Princesses to go along with the big way when it decided that 50-something men can still have adventures, but 50-something women probably ought to be replaced by their daughters.  On their merits, they're not unamusing, though if Lundy-Paine tops out at hollow mimickry of Reeves' '89 and '91 performances, Weaving maybe doesn't get that far.  And yeah: if one of the other things that was so special about the original duology was the way it took on a caricatured version of an enormously specific subculture, elevating it to cosmic importance while suggesting its dual messiahs' laidback surfer/stoner/Valley attitude was why they were chosen in the first place, then T and B represent an abdication of trying to do anything like the same thing with a Zoomer subculture, which of course are fairly caricature-ready (e.g., Booksmart).  Still, the challenge of making Zoomers funny isn't necessarily something I blame anybody for blanching at, and Face the Music is so shallowly feminist it's probably for the best they didn't bother and stayed in their comfort zone of attempting to accomplish that business in the boilerplate of its incredibly predictable finale.  Nevertheless, it still means what we get is a screenplay that openly admits that it was finished in all its essentials ten years ago, and even that doesn't quite excuse its curious failure to grapple much with the reality that the rock-and-roll that was supposed to save us is dead, something that even (the very-very-very similar) Trolls World Tour managed to do.  Indeed, Face the Music has a noticeably-arid soundtrack, with occasional guitar-driven soundbytes that as far as I can tell were purchased from an archive.  Jimi Hendrix is in this movie and he plays Mozart.

And let's talk about that: the cheapness.  It is not, overall, as powerfully and overwhelmingly ugly as its trailers, but it's a heinous piece of filmmaking, with constant resort to barely-composited greenscreen images and undercooked CGI that make it feel like a fan film.  Not even a passionate fan film.  (It's astonishing that even today this could cost $25 million.)  It's delivered by way of cinematography and editing that are even less explicable, and if the CG backdrops, embodying some deeply unimaginative production design, strip Face the Music of its immediate predecessor's bodacious scope, it's the indifference to basic cinema that nearly kills it.  Like, for example: there's a mild visual gag with former Stallyn and general bass-freak Death (William Sadler), now playing his games by himself, and presently engaged in a bout of tetherball, where he hits the ball, gets distracted, and hits himself in the head with it.  Instead of taking place in one shot, this is sliced up with a reaction shot that doesn't appear to be reacting to anything specifically, and strangles whatever small laugh it was ever going to get.  As for the visual creativity on display, consider the personalized Expressionist nightmares of Bogus Journey's Hell; now compare this to what T and B are up to in perdition, which turns out to be... digging a hole.  All of Face the Music's disappointing tendencies combine in a post-credits stinger—this isn't a spoiler—that visits again with the oldest versions of Bill and Ted we see.  (Okay, I'll give Face the Music this: its old-age make-up is crazy good.)  They play what might be their last guitar licks, and the camera dollies out, and out, and you get yourself good and ready for the appearance of their grim bandmate, ready to join them for their final jam—a bittersweet gag, I think, and a great place to truly bring this saga of the Wyld Stallyns to a close—and then... the camera just kind of dollies back in.  None of that movement mattered.  And, all along, we're assaulted with antiseptic, sub-televisual videography, sharp and flat and fake and awful.  Director Dean Parisot's biggest previous claim to fame is Galaxy Quest, and that movie's no Bogus Journey, but it still looked like a motion picture somebody wanted to make.

Which leaves us with Bill and Ted themselves, and whether Face the Music at least offers up the pleasure of meeting old friends.  I am happy to say for the most part it does, and as much as Parisot seems to actively hate directing this movie—as much as Matheson and Solomon appear to be dialing it back on the Bill and Ted dialect, strangely enough—it's somewhat funny, and it's a minor joy to see Winter and Reeves together again.  Winter has the better of it—my girlfriend suggests it's because he's had fewer opportunities to forget how to be Bill—but this is as pure a throwback as anything here, since Winter was probably first among equals back then, too (and it's always been a mistake to consider their performances literally identical), with Ted's dead-eyed slack-jawed idiocy being punctuated by the hilarious, overblown facial contortions from his companion.  (On the downside, I've never once considered Keanu Reeves to be "old" until now; there's something about the way he stiffly articulates Ted's gestures, and I can't decide whether it's a reasonable acting choice or not.)

Overall, the film, or at least the screenplay, manages to find something akin to the loosey-goosey comedy of the first two, even if it's nowhere as funny.  The best gags probably arise from the killer robot with a conscience (Anthony Carrigan) sent by the Excellent Future to martyr Bill and Ted—this plot is a fucking catastrophe, in case I've not made that clear—and while he's very much not funny, the way Bill and Ted have to work around him is.  And sure, it's nice to see Sadler's Death again.  I would absolutely listen to that all-bass album.  And that ending, predictable as it is, manages to have some emotional appeal, probably more than it rightly deserves.  So if this has all seemed like the rantings of a fanboy, I'm sure it is, but considering how absolutely devoid of newness Face the Music is—considering its pathological dedication to doing nothing but playing the old stuff poorly—I don't know who the hell else it could possibly have been for.  If I like it at all, it's solely thanks to being a fan that I do.

Score: 6/10

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