Imagine pitching this idea to studio heads – two air-headed slackers use a time-hopping telephone booth to gather great historical figures for their end-of-the-year history project. I wouldn’t call that the easiest sell. But what originated as a college stand-up routine ended up turning a nice profit, spawned a sequel, an animated TV series, even a breakfast cereal. I wonder who ever saw that coming?
“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” came from the writing duo of Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. The two college friends conceived the idea, winning over director Stephen Herek who told The Hollywood Reporter that he knew the film was “either going to be a huge hit or a huge flop“. After a roller-coaster production including hundreds of auditions, budget constraints, and a rewritten ending, “Bill & Ted” released in February of 1989 to mediocre reviews. But over time it has been reevaluated and the two lovable goofballs have found themselves a following.
Set in San Dimas, California 1988, best buddies Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) are more interested in their not-so-good rock band Wyld Stallyns than something silly like passing their history class. But they get a rude awakening when their teacher (the always fun Bernie Casey) informs them that if they don’t get an A+ on their history project they will flunk his class. Even worse, Ted’s draconian father threatens to send his son with military school in Alaska if he doesn’t pass the course.
While studying outside of their local Circle K, a time machine phone booth suddenly appears and out of it walks George Carlin (of all people). He plays Rufus, a time traveler from 2688 who has come back to help Bill and Ted ace their history project. Why you ask? Turns out that future humanity now live in utopian bliss thanks to the music of Wyld Stallyns. If the boys fail, Ted gets sent to Alaska, Wyld Stallyns never happens, you get the picture.
So Rufus gives Bill and Ted the keys to the phone booth. Things start a little rocky after they inadvertently bring Napoleon Bonaparte back to modern day. But it ends up inspiring the duo (not exactly known for their genius). They begin making other stops in the past, scooping up some of history’s greatest (and in same cases most notorious) celebrities including Socrates (affectionately mispronounced “so -crates”), Billy the Kid, Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Sigmund Freud, Joan of Arc (played by Jane Wiedlin from The Go-Go’s), and of course Abraham Lincoln.
Obviously such a ridiculous plan will have its share of kinks and the filmmakers have fun working them out. But what really makes the movie click is the playful buddy chemistry between Reeves and Winter. Charmingly dimwitted from start to finish, their silly banter and “most triumphant” air guitar rewards those who come at the story with a lighthearted approach. If the duo doesn’t work for you, neither will the movie. Everything else is pretty much dressing and/or part of the joke. It’s Bill and Ted’s movie from start to finish.
“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is every bit as absurd as it sounds, and that’s a compliment. Rewatching it, I was quickly reminded why it didn’t win any awards. Its skin-deep storytelling doesn’t have an ounce of nuance and the special effects definitely reflect the budget. But I was also reminded of why the movie still has a vocal, fun-loving following. It’s such a happy, good-natured escape that couldn’t take anything serious if it tried. Is that enough to make it worth your time? Totally!
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS