They told us to be excellent to each other, and as we were not in fact excellent to each other, they had to return to help see us through. Like that Jesus dude.
The Bill & Ted saga is now a trilogy. Following Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), two immensely clever movies I watched four hundred times in the early 1990s, we now have Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020). A 29-year gap? That’s about twice as long as the gap between the second and third Godfathers, and the hiatus doesn’t do much good this time, either. The new movie misses every opportunity to be creative about changed circumstances. Instead, it just settles for replaying the oldies, badly.
B & T (having risen to galactic fame with their band Wyld Stallyns) are now reduced to their status quo ante as struggling musicians. Today they’re playing experimental music at weddings, which yields a tiresome bit that veers away from joking about the headbanger idiom to take a poke at, I don’t know, Arnold Schönberg? Each of the boys has a 20-something daughter he has named after his bud: Ted’s daughter is Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Bill’s is Thea (Samara Weaving, niece of Hugo Weaving). As for Bill and Ted, they are played by two animatronic Madame Tussaud’s waxworks doing stiff imitations of Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves. Hang on — they actually, disquietingly are Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, doing the same shtick as ever, only this time it’s painful. (Winter, of course, is an established documentary filmmaker whose work includes The Panama Papers and Deep Web, but I wonder what Reeves has been up to since he made his name playing Ted “Theodore” Logan.)
Watching these two guys try to recreate those lovable Bush I–era doofi caused me to cringe so deeply I may need to consult a chiropractor. I realize Reeves is not exactly Daniel Day-Lewis, but I would have guessed he could at least pull off the role of himself. He doesn’t. He is rheumatic and puffy and awkward and I was kind of hoping John Wick would stroll in and blow everyone in this movie away. Better to go down in an artful slow-motion fusillade than to shuffle off the pop-culture map the way these guys do. When the boys rework the same plot points as in the earlier movies (using the phone-booth time machine to zip around history picking up famous musicians to form a band that will save the world), one of the friends they make along the way is Jimi Hendrix. This movie is like watching an arthritic 78-year-old Jimi Hendrix playing a residency in Vegas. No, not even Vegas: Branson. I hesitate to label Bill & Ted Face the Music bogus or heinous, because of its sweet disposition, but it is most non-triumphant.
Our culture has a slight problem with middle-aged bros being unable to let go of their teen selves, and this is a comic opportunity in a movie about boy-men. Yet B&T 3 eschews any kind of meta-reference to what it’s doing and simply trundles on as if we aren’t in a completely different era. The principals are exactly the same guys they always were, still making the same gestures and mouthing the same catchphrases. True, people don’t really change in their essence, but we’ve all changed a bit since 1991 and these guys are stuck in amber. Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon could have found laughs in how their Valley Boys got dented and worn down by time like everyone else, after marrying those medieval princesses (Jayma Mays, Erinn Hayes). Yet we don’t even get flashbacks of the dudes learning to change diapers and enduring Little Mermaid theme parties. Or, the writers could have taken the approach of The Brady Bunch Movie and had us all giggling at how clueless the fellas are about being left behind by the world. (Far more time has elapsed since the second movie than did so in the period between the Brady Bunch TV series and the big-screen adaptation.)
Instead, the weak central joke about the pals is that they are so inseparable they tell their wives, “We love you.” They get back in the world-saving business after a panicky warning from the future, courtesy of the daughter (Kristen Schaal) of their former time-traveling mentor Rufus (who was played by the late George Carlin). Remember how the boys once enlisted Beethoven to help them out? This time it’s totally different: Mozart. The only way they can save the world is by coming up with the most awesome rock song ever written, but nothing the movie can deliver could live up to that promise, and the ending does not come close.
The movie’s only spark of life comes from death: the Grim Reaper, once again hilariously played by William Sadler, who wants a second chance at playing with Bill and Ted. They find him difficult to work with: “Dude, you were playing 40-minute bass solos!” He protests: “I was in the groove!” He also advises us, “Playing tambourine is not as sissy as it looks.” By contrast, the gag of imagining that Bill & Ted’s grown daughters would turn out exactly like their garage-band burnout dads never goes anywhere, and the actresses playing the girls are uninspired. (The one playing Bill’s daughter looks more like Margot Robbie than her supposed dad.) Everyone connected with B&T 3 should hustle over to the phone booth at the Circle K, travel back in time, and talk themselves out of making this dreadful movie in the first place.