Patti Perret/Orion Pictures
I don’t know that I needed a third Bill & Ted movie, but I’ve got to say, I was happy to see it.
When Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves teamed up in 1989 for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the result was a scruffy, weird, quotable (“Strange things are afoot at the Circle K”) comedy that almost defied classification as, technically speaking, good or not good. It was, however, beloved by those who adopted its lingo as their own and watched it over and over on television. It was followed in 1991 by Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and serious chatter about a third film goes back to at least 2010. And now that film, Bill & Ted Face The Music, has arrived. And directed by Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) with a script by the original Bill & Ted scribes Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, it’s a bumpy but ultimately enjoyable ride.
First things first: It’s hard to revisit teenage characters who are aggressively identified with teenager-hood after 30 years. Bill and Ted are middle-aged men now, having married the “babes” they brought with them from the past, now played by Jayma Mays (Bill’s wife Joanna) and Erinn Hayes (Ted’s wife Elizabeth). They also both have teenage daughters, and in keeping with their overly enmeshed relationship, Bill’s daughter is named Thea (Samara Weaving) and Ted’s daughter is named Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine). But as we find them in 2020, their band Wild Stallyns has never really taken off the way people from the future seemed to promise that it was destined to do in the earlier films. And now, things have grown urgent. Kelly (Kristen Schaal), the daughter of their old telephone-booth guide Rufus (the late George Carlin), has come from said future with bad news to pass along from her mother (the always resplendent Holland Taylor): They really need to create the song that will save the world. Otherwise, time and space will change in ways that are most un-triumphant.
So from here, the story proceeds on two tracks: Bill and Ted must write (or otherwise locate) their greatest song, which turns out to involve visiting various versions of themselves in various realities. (I beg you: Do not try to get all this to make sense. Just go with it, gently humming, with your fingers in your ears.) Meanwhile, their daughters must put together an all-star band that will help their dads play that song in a way that can “unite the world.” That quest, of course, takes them into the past to gather musicians, much as their fathers gathered historical figures for their oral report in the first movie.
There was a loose goofiness between Bill and Ted, especially in the first movie, that’s elusive here. Winter seems more at ease in this version of Bill than does Reeves in this version of Ted. That goofiness actually comes out more effectively in the scenes between Weaving and Lundy-Paine, the latter of whom has really got a feel for playing the plausible progeny of 1989-era Keanu Reeves. But between Bill and Ted themselves, there’s a surprising stiffness in the early going. It may be that it’s just about impossible to effectively introduce these guys as 50-year-old dads while maintaining the link to them as high school dudes who were basically lovable stoners. (It’s worth noting that Travis in Clueless, who is playing almost exactly the same type as Bill and Ted, is explicitly tagged as a frequent enjoyer of weed, while the eternally stoned quality of these guys was all subtext and remains so.)
But as the film pushes toward its final act (and welcomes back William Sadler as Death, hooray!), it does find its feet. In the end, what’s always distinguished Bill & Ted is a weird sweetness in the deeply dependent relationship between the two of them and their shared belief that together, they were destined for greatness. And that sweetness does reemerge (along with the hilarious way that they are presented as long-haired guitar rockers and their music is always very dorky pop), and by the third act, it feels like an entirely worthy follow-up. Like the earlier films, it has a sneaky amiability that sort of sidles up to you like a golden retriever and somehow persuades you to hand over your sandwich.
Again, what are words like good versus not good to the boys of San Dimas? How would a return to Bill and Ted have felt in a theater, playing opposite entirely new films less reliant on nostalgia, exploring less ephemeral concepts, outside a pandemic context? Hard to say. You can’t really freeze time, even your time as a viewer. The fellas are older, but I am also, after all, 30 years older, with 30 more years of buddy movies and buddy-movie conventions under my belt. But inside a pandemic context, when so little is upbeat at all, I was very happy to see these guys again. And as a story about aging, there’s a lot about it that I like: There’s a nice balance between knowing you can still rock out 30 years after high school and knowing that the time eventually comes when you are probably not the point person on the effort to save the world.