Principal Cast : Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin, Terry Camilleri, Dan Shor, Tony Steedman, Rod Loomis, Al Leong, Jane Wiedlin, Robert V Barron, Clifford David, Hal Landon Jr, Bernie Casey, Amy Stock-Poynton, J Patrick McNamara, Fraizuer Bain, John Karlsen, Diane Franklin, Kimberley LaBelle, Clarence Clemons, Martha Davis, Fee Waybill.
Synopsis: Two seemingly dumb teens set off on a quest to prepare the ultimate historical presentation with the help of a time machine.
Cult classic time-travel adventure Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure works largely because if the chemistry and screen presence of its two leads, the inestimable Keanu Reeves and the irrepressible Alex Winter. Of course, having seminal comic George Carlin among your supporting roster goes a long way to assist, but the cult classic film remains a sweet, endearing flick without attempting snark or self-congratulation, It’s as honest a kid-friendly romp as you’re likely to find, and one that remains enjoyable despite the wonky visual effects and the low-budget nature of its production.
80’s slackers Bill S Preston Esquire (Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Reeves) are about to flunk high school history class. Their teacher (Bernie Casey) advises that they’ll drop out of school unless they perform well above their intellectual level for a major history report in front of the school the following day. Ted’s father, a local police captain, tells his no-hoper son that if he does flunk class, he’ll be sent to military school in Alaska, whilst Bill has his own problems of a philandering father (J Patrick McNamara) flirting with his new stepmother, the far younger Missy (Amy Stock-Poynton) making him uncomfortable. As the pair begin to panic, they run into a mysterious time traveller, Rufus (George Carlin) in his travelling telephone booth, who invites them to go travelling throughout history to learn more about famous historical figures and ace their test; in doing so, Bill and Ted run into such luminaries as Napoleon Bonaparte (Terry Camilleri), psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis) and even American President Abraham Lincoln (Robert V Barron), among others, all of whom the pair bring back to San Dimas, California to learn about the present and help them pass their class.
Borrowing liberally from franchises such as Doctor Who (the phone box mechanism for time travel) and Back To The Future (changing the past to change the future etc etc) and throwing sense and reason to the wind, Bill & Ted’s first film (their second, Bogus Journey, came in 1991, while at the time of writing this review a third film is in post-production) is a gentle, unassuming comedic affair that hangs solely on both the chemistry of Reeves and Winter (who are excellent) and the bulging supporting cast of historical figures, all of whom get some truly splendid time to shine time-shifted into late-80’s Californian culture. The film itself is largely driven by the kind of stoner comedy made popular by Cheech and Chong and Kevin Smith’s Clerks later on, that whimsical ironic humour derived from idiocy that works on multiple levels. Bill and Ted might be protagonists in the film, but they don’t really drive the plot of the film so much as hang on and ride it out despite their lack of intelligence. And bless it, the film doesn’t denigrate them as idiots, rather it celebrates their clumsy, nonsensical assumption that all will be well regardless of any actions they do or do not take, and for that I think Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is as pure a slacker comedy as has even been made.
Shot for a reputed budget of just under $7m back in the 1980’s, the film’s sun-bleached Californian aesthetic, together with a vaguely Wayne’s World-esque musical association (the pair have their own “band”, the Wyld Stallyns) and the nutball antics of Reeves and Winter, who look perplexed for almost the entire length of the movie, provide gentle, unassuming gags and some sweet-natured laughs that hold up even today. Sure, the visual effects of a time travelling phone box have dated badly in the intervening decades, but in avoiding specificity of popular culture where possible (something Back To The Future struggles with today) there’s a charm and effortlessness to the movie I enjoyed more than I expected. I remember seeing Bill & Ted on television (never caught it in cinemas) in standard 4×3 ratio and really enjoyed the original 2.35 ratio modern HD technology provides, although the widescreen scope isn’t really utilised as well as a bigger budget film might have allowed, given the shoestrings operating on this production.
Director Stephen Herek, who had a gangbuster decade between 1986’s Critters and 1996’s Mr Holland’s Opus, before succumbing to the dreaded Hollywood “Director’s Jail” for giving us the execrable Holy Man with Eddie Murphy, isn’t the most visually electrifying director, and his staging and editing of certain sequences and overall narrative flow is clunky at best. He can’t direct action (a sequence with a couple of medieval knights and a kitchen brawl is spectacularly undercooked) but his editing of comedy is prosaic indeed, allowing both Reeves and Winter time to maximise their offbeat wit and radically pleasing charm. Several subplots to the film are cringeworthy (Bill’s stepmother and father stuff is awful, by today’s standards) but by and large, the movie works best when it’s thrusting characters into scenarios they’re unfamiliar with. For Bill and Ted, it’s anything in the past, whilst for the historical figures they bring back to the present, it’s everything in their future. Beethoven captivating mall audiences by playing multiple synthesizers and pianos at once, Joan Of Arc’s attempt to run an exercise group, and Terry Camilleri’s screamingly funny Napoleon figuring out the fun of a waterslide are among the film’s high points, and it’s all played for silly laughs and never once taken seriously.
Nostalgia hits a home run revisiting Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s a blast of classic 80’s fun, an effects-driven comedic story that offers two engaging performances surrounded by a commendable supporting cast. There’s no nastiness here, no real villain (other than the ticking clock of failing a class) and it’s a film bereft of offensive material (aside from the obvious teenage stepmom subplot) so you can watch it with your kids without too much trouble. It’s little wonder Keanu Reeves spent a large part of his early career trying to escape the role of Ted Logan, it’s such a pronounced difference from anything he’s done since, and to see it once more made me smile for a simpler time and far simpler cinema. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, indeed, excellent, and one can only echo their oft-spouted sentiments wholeheartedly: party on, dudes.