- Year: 1989
- Director: Stephen Herek
- Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin
I need to make an apology. I really should have swapped this one out for Time Bandits. I left Time Bandits out, because we already had one Terry Gilliam film in the match-up (12 Monkeys) and one film where David Warner plays the villain (Time After Time), but that film is so much more creative than this one. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is pretty much dumbed down Time Bandits as a high school movie.
Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are two slackers who need to ace their history project or they will fail the course. They’re lost as how to go about doing that when they’re visited by Rufus (George “Can I Say Any of Those Seven Words in Movies” Carlin), who lives in 2688, a futuristic utopia inspired by Bill and Ted’s music and attitude. He gives them access to his phone booth time machine, so they can get an “A” on their project and change the world.
I guess there’s some irony in the fact that George Carlin is really phoning in his performance and how the time machine is a phone booth, but it really just seems like he’s in this for the paycheck.
The future of 2688 seems like a pretty cool place, not because Bill and Ted inspired it, but because it is run by… The Minister of Soul, The Master of the Universe, Eighth Wonder of the World,
DO I HAVE TO SAY HIS NAME? DO I HAVE TO SPEAK HIS NAME?
Alright, so that works better with an audience, but seriously that’s Clarence “Big Man” Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, playing one of “The Three Most Important People in the World” (so essentially himself).
Bill and Ted use the time machine to round up various historical figures to come and speak for their history report, including Napoleon, Billy the Kid, and Socrates. Since Bill and Ted are lovable idiots (the lovable part is up for debate), they don’t know much about them and often pronounce names incorrectly like “So-Crayts.”
The potential for jokes here is endless, but it is barely utilized at all. Most of the jokes rely on Bill and Ted simply being idiots, and instead of clever historical references, it’s mostly just “Hey dude that’s Abraham Lincoln.” We could have had American Presidents wondering what’s going on in Mongol China or outlaws exploring Napoleonic France, but it’s just a jump from set piece to set piece.
Dan Shor is at least mildly amusing as Billy the Kid, because at least it looks like he’s enjoying himself. The odd friendship between him and Socrates has a couple moments that’ll get a chuckle. The one figure the movie does kind of put some thought into is Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis) who seems to be holding a sexual object in every scene—a cigar, a vacuum hose, a straw, a corn dog, etc.
In a completely superfluous subplot to fill time in a 90 minute movie, Bill and Ted leave Napoleon at home with Ted’s little brother. What do they do? They go out for ice cream. Um… what’s the joke? Napoleon eats a lot of ice cream and likes it, but how is that funny? The pin he earns for eating all the ice cream looks silly next to his military buttons, but surely this whole subplot couldn’t have existed for that one sort-of joke. What if he looked at a dessert menu and saw a Napoleon? I’m not saying it’s hilarious, but it is at least a joke. Then, Napoleon goes bowling for no discernible reason. It relies way too much “People will think Napoleon doing things in the 20th century will be hilarious” instead of actual clever writing. At least the water park where Bill and Ted finally catch him is named Waterloo, so it’s good to know that the people writing this are at least minimally familiar with history.
There’s a scene near the end where Bill and Ted are getting ready to take the historical figures to the auditorium for the speech, but Bill’s stepmom (whom he has a whole Freudian thing with, because time travel movies in the ’80s insisted on it) tells him he has to do his chores first. He makes all the historical figures help, but with the exception of Freud and the vacuum, there aren’t any jokes except “Look, it’s famous people doing chores.”
This is followed by all the historical figures getting loose in the local mall. It kind of feels like this is the scene we’ve been building up to, seeing as how the previous scenes were really rushed. So what does Joan of Arc do? She goes to the hair salon and gets her hair cut? No, okay, um she goes to the boy’s clothing store? Alright, no, I’ve got it. She goes to the mall’s restaurant and gets served a burned steak.
She teaches aerobics… because it’s the ’80s I guess. I give up. Where’s the joke? This is simply another “Here’s someone doing something they don’t normally do” scene that expects us it find it funny simply because it’s random. The most egregious example has to be Abraham Lincoln though. You have Abraham Lincoln in a mall. How hard is this? It’s written in the oldest book of jokes that you have to send him to the movie theater. Instead, he goes to get his photo taken, which of course isn’t funny.
This could all be forgiven if our leads were actually interesting characters, but they’re not. Bill and Ted are the typical “Sure they’re stupid but they’re just so darn sweet you have to love them,” but I just can’t stand them. It’s sort of trying to be a PG stoner comedy, which is really weird, because a stoner flick without the drugs doesn’t make any sense. I know the creators have said Bill and Ted aren’t stoners, but come on—random philosophizing, the deadpan reactions, the general slacking attitude. These are clearly stoner stereotypes.
The constant catchphrasing and high-fives between the two isn’t funny to begin with and only gets more annoying as it goes on. It comes off as insincere, especially when Bill thinks Ted has been killed and simply says “This is bogus.” The script has a weird mix of moments where the audience is supposed to laugh at how stupid they are, but plenty of others where we’re supposed to love them and feel sorry for them. I don’t find the “idiot fish out of water” comedy all that funny to begin with, but it’s been done better than this.
Time travel is handled a bit differently than most films, though. At various times when Bill and Ted are in trouble, they simply say they’ll go back in the time machine and fix it later, instantly solving the problem at hand. In a serious movie, this would be too easy, but it works in a comedy, since we all know it has to work out anyway. It’s just a quicker way of getting there, and it’s actually kind of clever.
If Dumb and Dumber meets Time Bandits sounds like a movie you’d like, you’ll be entertained by Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. If it doesn’t, I don’t think you’re in for a surprise. It’s about what you’d expect.
Story (11/30 Points)
So many scenes feel like set-ups for good jokes, but they end up falling flat. It goes through the standard time travel cliches—issues with the machine, last minute escapes, the works. The Napoleon subplot is padding at its most obvious, and the “ace this assignment or you fail the class” has been done so many times before, and it’s incredibly tired.
Cast (14/30 Points)
You love Bill and Ted or you find them annoying. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are clearly having fun, so I’ll give them some credit. George Carlin on the other hand is not having fun. The historical figures don’t have much to work with, but for the most part the actors portraying them don’t really add anything. Freud and Billy the Kid are enjoyable, but I can’t think of one scene where Lincoln or Beethoven was all that funny. The addition of Clarence Clemons as the literal “master of the universe, king of the world” is pretty enjoyable, but he has just two short scenes.
Experience (13/25 Points)
The tone is pretty consistent, and if it’s your kind of film, you’ll enjoy the charms. It’s just not for me. There’s a lot of ’80s rock, which is appropriate, because Bill and Ted’s music goes onto inspire the world.
Originality (5/15 Points)
It’s really, really unoriginal. Most of the humor doesn’t go anywhere, and the characters and plot lines have been seen before. The whole thing just kind of feels like they’re going through the motions.
FINAL SCORE: 43%
So many scenes in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure feel like they’re being filmed as quickly as possible, just so they can get on to the next one. Unfortunately, it never really leads to anything. Sure, there’s the big presentation at the end, but even that isn’t really funny. Obviously, most people disagree with me, as it spawned a sequel, a cartoon, a cereal, and somehow a career for Keanu Reeves. I completely understand why it’s popular, but I can’t get into it.
Next week, it’s a complete 180 with the psychological thriller 12 Monkeys.