Thursday, September 3, 2020

Bill and Ted Face the Music

Director: Dean Parisot
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Kristen Schaal, Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, William Sadler, Anthony Carrigan, Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mays, Hal Landon Jr., Beck Bennett, Kid Cudi, Amy Stoch, Holland Taylor
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: PG-13
★★★ (out of ★★★★) 
Before watching the long-anticipated third installment of the Bill and Ted series, Bill and Ted Face the Music, I couldn't help but consider how other recently sequeled and rebooted films and TV series have fared under the similar circumstance of waiting decades to see the light of day. 2014's Dumb and Dumber To and 2016's Pee-Wee's Big Holiday were both creative disappointments that grossly overestimated fans' loyalty and patience, proving that just a trip down memory lane isn't always enough. The former tried too hard to replay the characters' antics from the original, while completely losing sight of how their advanced ages would affect our view of their behavior. Pee-Wee fared only slightly better, if only because of Paul Reubens, who was let down by a toothless story that failed to grasp the subversive genius and lunacy of the character. Only Netflix's Cobra Kai has shown exactly how well this can be done, retroactively enhancing the legacy of The Karate Kid by actually improving and building upon what was most beloved about the original. 
Ideally, the Cobra Kai treatment is what we'd want for Bill and Ted, which has bar to clear that's probably a tad lower than those aforementioned properties, despite a still sizable fanbase. But after numerous false starts and promises for a sequel, is it too late? Well, if it's good enough, then no. That's always the answer. As to whether Bill and Ted Face the Music is actually worth the wait, that's a little more complicated since increasingly fewer sequels are. But that's not a criticism when you consider the time we had to build up our expectations and contemplate the paths a potential follow-up could take in failing to fulfill them. When put in those terms, this is a lot of fun, if overstuffed and spotty at points. 

To his credit, director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) doesn't merely coast on the many thrills of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter effortlessly sliding back into their iconic roles, even as we couldn't have guessed they'd be co-starring opposite two actressess capable of matching them. And while I can only imagine what those unfamilar with the franchise would think of it, they won't watch anyway, so the film gets away with indulging in some fan service. The originals were always kind of viewed through rose-colored glasses and that this has a self-referential awareness of that nostalgia only serves to make the experience more enjoyable.

Now married fathers, William "Bill" S. Preston Esq. (Winter) and Theodore "Ted" Logan (Reeves) have spent most of their adult lives fronting the band they formed as burnt out, dim-witted teenagers, The Wyld Stallyns, while still failing in their quest to write a song that will unite the world. Now playing family weddings as their Medievel princess spouses Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth ((Erinn Hayes) look on in disappointment, they're about ready to hang up their guitars despite mini-me daughters Thea (Samara Weaving) and Billie's (Brigette Lundy-Paine) unending, headbanging adulation of their music. But after a visit from Rufus' time-traveling daughter, Kelly (Kristen Schaal), the guys are taken to the Great Leader (Holland Taylor), who informs them they have until 7:17 pm to write "the song" or reality will completely collapse upon itself, a process that's already underway. 

Armed with mentor Rufus' phone booth, Bill and Ted come up with a plan to travel through time and obtain the song from their future selves and bring it back with them, skipping the work of actually writing it. Blissfully unaware of the obvious flaws in that approach, they proceed to make an even bigger mess of things while their daughters also time travel to gather a hall of fame of great musicians to help their fathers craft this perfect song. 

Little do they all know a killer robot (Anthony Carrigan) whose name you won't soon forget is tasked with eliminating them, if only he can remain emotionally stable enough to do so. They also have a reunion with the Grim Reaper (William Sadler), with whom they still have lingering music business disagreements that caused a falling out. With pressure mounting, Bill and Ted may finally be forced to mature and write the one hit song that's always alluded them. And it's kind of a big deal, with the universe ending and all. 

It's almost as if every possible idea for this sequel that's landed on a studio executive's desk since 1991's Bogus Journey was crammed into this one's brisk 90-minute running time. That's not necessarily a bad thing when considering the overall zaniness of this series, but it does seem overcrowded and a bit uneven, resulting in a mixed bag filled with hits and misses. Luckily, there's more hits, with the proceeedings getting off on the right foot almost immediately when we meet the 2020 versions of these beloved characters still performing as they always have, albeit at far smaller venues this time around. The wedding that kicks things is one of the film's many laugh-out-loud moments and successful gags, giving us a pretty good idea of what's to come. 

Other than being a little older, heavier, and married, it's essentially the same Bill and Ted, almost as if no time's passed at all. Only, it has. But Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon's script doesn't run away from that and appropriately centers the story around these two middle-aged slackers being forced to finally grow up, if not for their own sakes, then to save their crumbling marriages. An early scene with the two couples in therapy is one of the cleverest, perfectly encapsulating the bone-headed philosophy of our two protagonists and providing relief that they haven't changed one bit. 

There's something substantially less pathetic going on here than we saw in Dumber and Dumber To, with recognition that they can't just repeat the exact same hijinx we saw decades ago and expect an identical result. Then again, the characters can't exactly change or evolve too much either. It's a thin line, but one the script mostly pulls off while keeping the spirit of the franchise intact. The movie gets into more problematic territory when confronted with the nuts and bolts of the plot, which somehow manages to make less sense than the previous installments. Needlessly convoluted at points, it does kind of have a thrown together feel, probably resulting from all the different incarnations this project must have gone through before Steven Soderbergh eventually stepped in as producer to help deliver what we have now.

The story thread involving Bill and Ted having various encounters with versions of their future selves is both wildly inconsistent and endearingly amusing at the same time, with the best of these sequences involving a face-to-face with their rich, pampered British rocker couterparts and a welcome Dave Grohl cameo. But it's the sub-plot involving their daughters that most obviously pays tribute to the original film, with Billie and Thea hopping through time to gather an all-star line-up of legendary musicians like Mozart (Daniel Dorr), Louis Armstrong (Jeremiah Craft) and Jimi Hendrix (DazMann Still, who looks distractingly unlike him). Then there's Kid Cudi, appearing somewhat randomly as a time displaced iteration of himself. 

While none of this carries the impact of Socrates and Lincoln's contributions in Excellent Adventure, it still works, as does the eventual excursion into Hell where they reunite with William Sadler's jilted Grim Reaper. This, and everyone's interactions with Carrigan's socially awkward robot Dennis Caleb McCoy feel the most Bill and Ted of everything in the entire film and something that would feel right at home in either of the prequels. Other elements click, but given the choice, there's something immensely enjoyable about how those two characters are incorporated into the plot and play off Bill and Ted. 

It may have been the role that made him famous, but even well into his superstar ascent it was difficult for Keanu Reeves to shake the "stigma" of playing Ted that seemed to trail him throughout his career. Then something changed and the more the actor spread his wings in a variety of different projects over the decades, it became abundantly clear the character wasn't a stereotypically airheaded reflection of the person playing him. So it's a good thing Keanu never took that idea, or himself, all that seriously, instead building a varied résumé of work to prove his adaptability as a performer. 

The tide has now turned toward fans wanting the actor to reprise the role, not as a joke, but because we legitimately think he could bring a fascinating new dimension to it in upper middle-age. While I'm still unsure the part even necessitates that level of depth or commitment, watching him do this again just feels right. Moving from flannel to sports jackets while maintaining Ted's same sense of dopiness, wonder, hazy-eyed cluelessness with complete sincerity, we may have finally realized the actor and character really are inseparable. The only difference now is that we mean it as a compliment.

Largely avoiding the spotlight while establishing himself as a force behind the camera, Alex Winter always semed to have a gift for making Bill seem like the more grounded of the pair. Running with it from exactly where he left off in '91, the timing's definitely still there, making it kind of remarkable we've seen so little of him on screen prior to what's now his most high profile project in years. His outing here serves as a reminder that this was never an indictment on his comedic chops, as he's close to being one of the best things about this sequel.

When the guys do permanently bow out of these roles (as the film's ending already implies they may have), we at least know now they'll have more than suitable replacements. As Thea, Brigette Lundy-Paine delivers the most ingenious impersonation of Keanu Reeves playing Ted you'll ever likely see, right down to his voice, hand gestures and speech patterns, all while still finding a way to make the character's spirit completely hers. You won't be able to take your eyes off her as she delivers what feels like the ultimate greatest hits compilation of every "Whoa, Dude" and "Excellent" fans practiced with their friends as a kid. And yet, it somehow ends up being so much more, doing a better version of Keanu doing Ted than Keanu does. 

Since Bill doesn't have quirks that are quite as easily identifiable, Samara Weaving isn't given as much to play with, but there isn't a moment where she doesn't seem to be every bit her father's daughter in terms of appearance and personality. It's just great casting with these two, who steal the movie from their co-stars, especially as we realize the story's as much about these aimlessly likable 25 year-olds as it is their dads. 

Just trying to find their way, the supportive Billie and Thea and blindlessly devoted to the Wyld Stallyns music, but burdened by many of the same distractions that prevented their fathers' careers from ever truly taking flight. It would have been the easy way out to build the whole plot around Bill and Ted trying to fix some kind of rift with their estranged daughters, but they instead took the far more effective route of just making the girls funny and strange, and their dads' biggest, goofiest fans. It's really why the whole movie works, most especially in its closing minutes. 

The absence of the late George Carlin as Rufus was always going to be an issue, and while his presence is sorely missed, enough time has passed that it isn't the giant, insurmountable problem we imagined it could be. A holagrammed version of him does briefly appear via CGI in a respectful, undistracting moment and fans will be happy to see that his phone booth is just as integral to the plot as it was in the previous entries. Considering Rufus can't be suitably replaced, it at at least makes sense that his daughter would step in as a nod to the character, even if most of Kristen Schaal's comedic scenes opposite the Great Leader kind of fall flat through no fault of her own.

After all the years of hearing about and subsequently not getting a Bill and Ted sequel, the fact that we would finally be getting one was starting to feel like a no-win situation, if only because of the expectations. But it turns out that those involved knew exactly what they were making and did their best to make it feel smarter than merely a reunion tour celebrating a movie from their youth that probably wouldn't play as well now. Which isn't to say this doesn't give us a very large helping of nostalgic comfort food that's evident the second we see that classic Orion Pictures logo flash on screen. And with all the years available to release this sequel, did they ever ever pick the right one to have Bill and Ted write their song that could potentially unite and save the world. Funny how those things just seem to work out.  

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