The long-long-long awaited sequel is a dicey enough proposition; remember “Independence Day: Resurgence”? “Blues Brothers 2000”? “Zoolander 2”? (Judging by the grosses, probably not.) But it’s particularly sticky when it comes to Bill and Ted, whose inaugural efforts – 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and 1991’s “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” – were so decidedly of their moments, rooted in the metal-dude doofery of the end of the ‘80s. and powered by a seemingly irreplicable worldview, silly but not the least bit cynical. You can see the difficulty here, as few things on this earth as inherently cynical as a delayed-by-decades movie sequel.
So it’s a minor miracle that “Bill & Ted Face the Music” works at all – much less that it’s so daffily enjoyable, funny and clever and unapologetically sweet. A fleet-footed opening sequence fills us in on the events of the intervening 29 years: after the conclusion of “Bogus Journey,” and the world takeover that wrap-up seemed to promise, Wyld Stallyns crashed, burned, and lost their relevance, like many an ‘80s rock band before them. When we meet up with their middle-aged iterations, William “Bill” S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theorore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) are still trying to create the song that will unite the world, much to the chagrin of pretty much everyone around them – except their carbon-copy daughters, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving), who are unemployed, live-at-home music fanatics who idolize their “most excellent dads.”
But their marriages with “the princesses” (Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes) are in trouble, and their failed band is teetered precariously on the verge of a break-up (“We have to think about our fans, dude!” “Bob and Wendy will totally understand, Eileen we haven’t heard from in several years”). And this is the moment when Kelly (Kristen Schaal), the daughter of their time-traveling guide Rufus, shows up to transport them to the year 2720 – where they discover, to their horror, that they are within hours of the point in 2020 where that fabled, world-uniting song must exist, in order to stop a series of bizarre time-folds and “save reality as we know it.”
“At some point, we must’ve written that song,” Bill reasons, and there you have the picture’s ingenious premise: faced with a hard deadline and a killer case of writer’s block (we’ve all been there, dudes), the duo attempts to travel through various points in their post-2020 future to retrieve the completed song from their later selves. That offers plenty of possibilities for mind-bending multiple timelines; simultaneously, their daughters are also time-traveling, figuring they can help their dads by putting together an all-star, epoch-spanning band – including Jimi Hendrix, Louis B. Armstrong, and Mozart – to perform the forthcoming tune.
These comingled story strands shrewdly recreate the most memorable elements of each earlier film – our heroes gathering incongruent historical figures in “Excellent Adventure,” and battling evil versions of themselves (while facing Death, again played by a game William Sadler) from “Bogus Journey.” The latter inventions are particularly ingenious, as the increasingly astonished (and disappointed) Bill and Ted encounter themselves at various ages and burgeoning levels of evil; the variations are too good to spoil, but let it be noted that when they discover that the rich and successful Bill and Ted have adopted Madonna-style fake British accents, one can’t help but wonder if we’re also seeing Reeves winking at his own troubles, earlier in his career, with that particular dialect.
“Bill & Ted Face the Music” is a little rocky early on, as screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon (who also penned the earlier entries) must balance catch-up, fan service, and new characters and conflicts. But once it finds its rhythm, it hums right along. This is a busy picture, perhaps too much so for its slender running time (one thread in particular, in which their wives also travel through time, doesn’t go much of anywhere). But these scribes, along with director Dean Parisot – who knows a thing or two about reunions of beloved properties, having also helmed “Galaxy Quest” – know exactly what their movie is supposed to be, and nimbly navigate the complicated equation of a revival that’s more than mere retread.
The supporting players are a blast – Weaving and Lundy-Paine wittily and cannily replicate the cadences and body language of their onscreen dads, while Jillian Bell does some expert scene-stealing as a wry marriage counselor, as does Anthony Carrigan (“Barry“) as a hilariously inept killer robot. But we’re here for Reeves and Winter, and they deliver. Reeves’ comic timing, a muscle he hasn’t flexed in a while, is still sharp as a tack (he put across the dopey persona so well that it’s easy to undervalue the slyness of his stoner turns in these films and the contemporaneous “Parenthood”), and Winter’s good-natured gregariousness is apparently ageless. Most importantly, the actors’ love for each other shines through; they’ve actually been pals for all these years, and that casual, understood affection is vital. Without it, the picture falls apart.
But the tone is also key, and Parisot gets it just right. From the beginning, Bill and Ted were doofuses, but you never got a sense that the filmmakers were looking down at them; “Excellent Adventure” and “Bogus Journey” banked on their sheer likability (those fleeting moments of homophobia aside), and their indubitable earnestness. That quality comes across even more clearly after all these years – and maybe it takes actors of this age, who have lived with these defining characters for so long, to pull off the wildly unexpected pathos and emotion of the climax, which lands like a sock in the jaw.
The conclusion of “Bill & Ted Face the Music” is pure corn, and by that point, they’ve earned it. It’s a film that’s somehow both offhand and meticulous, shaggy yet crisp, and the apparent joy of its creation is infectious. I laughed through a lot of it, and smiled through the rest. What a treat this movie is. [B+]