Update June 2019: Another watch-through in light of the internet love for Keanu Reeves these days, and I still find Bill and Ted’s earnestness and innocence, their undying and seemingly unawares appreciation for a way of life that doesn’t even seem to register as a choice for them, to be ludicrously intoxicating all these years later. Sometimes this works to the film’s detriment: almost none of the scenes where Bill and Ted themselves aren’t on-screen work at all. Still though, the slightly elegiac tone that undercuts the otherwise spirited slapstick fracas is the real surprise here. The year-long delay in the film’s release date practically stamped it as a time-capsule of a bygone era even for its initial audience, and that sense of wistfulness is perhaps more evocative today in light of rock music’s own existential conundrum just two years after the film’s release (when grunge melancholy soundly ripped hair metal earnestness to shreds). Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure feels less like a time capsule than a dream that seems to know that its own era is already passing, and for that reason, it can’t but refuse to admit its own premature burial in order to salvage its soul and preserve its sanity.
Most, and too many, reviews of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure focus on the contrasting futures of its two main stars. That Keanu Reeves went on to temporary mega-stardom while Alex Winter is just “the guy who’s not Keanu Reeves” is one of those endlessly befuddling, perplexing mysteries of pop culture that people love to ponder on about without rhyme or rhythm. Perhaps it was luck, or some vague sense that Keanu was more attractive, but discussing their futures misses the point. For in 1989, we only had Bill and Ted to go on, and in 2014, we should judge Bill and Ted on the merits of Bill and Ted, not the future careers of its two stars.
In particular, this time-lapse avenue of criticism misses the point for this film, because there really isn’t, nor is there supposed to be, a difference between the two performers. Based on their performances here, neither seem long-lost talents as individuals. What both performances are, however, is completely and entirely fit for their roles here, which is all that matters in an immediate sense. The point has been made about Reeves on end: he is effective when the role requires him to be himself, and that was never more-so true than here. And the same could be said about Winter, assuming anyone knew anything about his personal life.
But the fact is: the real reason why the Keanu success story is so strange is that the two SoCal surfer dudes are largely indistinguishable from one another here, and that I take to be a descriptive statement more than a judgment call. The script doesn’t much want them to differ or contain shadings or nuance; they are both proudly who they are, and all that they are, all of the time. And what they are is two halves of a whole shell, one figure, “Bill and Ted”, in two less-than-fully-functioning bodies. It’s difficult to really do much with either of them, for they exist more as parts to a whole. And as a whole, they bring just about the strangest, most beguiling charm imaginable to the film, imbuing their two characters – characters that should by all means come off as painfully overbearing and under-thought – with a low-key camaraderie and a surprisingly lived-in ragamuffin charm.
Of course, it’s not just Bill and Ted the two characters that keeps this pop-culture curio afloat, but Bill and Ted the film around them that invests itself in those two characters and privileges them in just about every shot in the film. It is not quite accurate to say that the film takes their perspective on the world, but it at least flies close-by and doesn’t judge. This film is Bill and Ted because their combustible bro-mance carries the film along on some of the most perplexing humanist energy the grim and grimy late ’80s spent its nights dreaming of. It’s an archly ’80s film, perhaps the most ’80s film of its decade (and that decade produced Top Gun), decked out tooth and nail in cheery heavy metal attitude and gleeful naivete. Even the plot summary sounds like a poppy power metal concept album: two SoCal bros, Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Reeves), struggle to pass their history exam in order to graduate high school, lest they face the terrible consequences of underachievement and, for Ted, military school. It is at this point when fate shines on them: a middle aged man named Rufus (George Carlin) ventures back in time to inform them of the import of their graduation, and specifically, the success of their quasi-band Wyld Stallyns, which will go on to form the backbone of a world-spanning religion of pure peace and perfection in the future. Rufus has to make sure they pass their history final, which, for him, encompasses something much more radical, and dare I say excellent, than getting them some coffee and a library pass: time travel.
What unfolds is a lightly episodic descent into late ’80s teenage male-dom at its purest. It’s the kind of film that longs for a simpler, more excellent, place, even as it is wholly of its moment from beginning to end. It knows well that its ’80s is a pastiche of pop culture – absolutely nothing in the film operates anywhere close to reality. But the film never lives above its characters – it’s wholly genuine, and wholly on the ride with them. It takes their problems seriously and elevates them to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, serving as a low-key ode to slacker aloofness and zany underdog sensibility. It’s essentially a live-action cartoon, but it’s so committed to its cartoon sensibility it attains a certain beguiling charm. It’s the sort of film where words like “good” and “bad” hold no meaning, twisting into each other and cavorting together with free spirits galore.
Indeed, the film doesn’t really succeed due to any particular strength. It’s not well written (the script by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon doesn’t even do much with the historical figures traveling around modern SoCal second-half of the film), well-directed (Stephen Herek’s framing is forever static and unambitious), or well-acted in any conventional sense of the world. It doesn’t really work as a narrative either – more like a rough semblance of ideas strewn together haphazardly. It’s not even particularly funny, operating less as a comedy than a chill-out session.
For whatever reason, though, it works. In the final analysis, it’s almost as if it were made by Bill and Ted themselves, almost as if this is their rock ‘n’ roll vision of human compassion and genial excellence. It’s hard to say why; perhaps nothing of this world can explain its existence. Maybe one needs to look to the future. There are a series of life mottos thrown out with utmost sincerity by Bill and Ted’s would-be followers, all of which are the most ludicrous bits of nonsensical triteness you could imagine. And yet because the film wins us over in spite of ourselves by simply trusting in these mottos and never batting an eye, Bill and Ted sell us just as they will go on to sell the entire human race. The most ubiquitous life lesson is egalitarian and pragmatic: “Be excellent!”. And if the film never achieves that goal, it believes it does, just like Bill and Ted. That is its magic, its joie de vivre. Like Bill and Ted, it just is – it knows not the pain of higher aspirations – and we follow. If, of course, it’ll have us. Thankfully, Bill and Ted, in their gliding-yet-lurching, easy-going yet awkward concern for humanity, will have just about anyone.