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Review: “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989)

Concepts don’t get much headier than the one we find in Valley Guy classic “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Two unmotivated best friends (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) unceremoniously failing their history class who stumble upon a future dweller (George Carlin) and the most bodacious time machine that will solve their academic dilemma? By bringing Important Historical Figures (IHFs, if you will) back to present-day (1988, that is) San Dimas, Calif., to see what they think of the 20th century?


But fret not, for the concept is the only thing remotely highbrow and pretentious about “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a zany postmodern romp through history that became something of a pop-culture phenomenon. (It’s the question of my generation: Without Bill and Ted, would there have been a Wayne and Garth? Would Keanu Reeves have made the Ted-Logan-to-Johnny-Utah transition so critical to his burgeoning film career? “Nay” on both counts, I say.) Not surprisingly, the movie hardly presents a serious look at how history’s leaders see modern-day America. Instead, scriptwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon create what, essentially, is a fish-out-of-water comedy on two levels, with both groups of fish — the bonehead team of Ted and Bill, the big-namers they kidnap — flopping toward a comical and surprisingly satisfying conclusion.

Let’s not get crazy with the Serious Film Talk, though. Bo-ring. What matters most in “Bill & Ted” is the way all that flopping generates some a series of most excellently comical escapades. The fun really gets cranking when the mysterious Rufus (Carlin, at the height of his laconic powers) materializes in his time-travel elevator outside the Circle K where Bill and Ted are boning up for their history final. (This scene spawned the genius line “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.”) He’s come from the future, he says, to help Bill and Ted pass their final. To prove his claims, he transports the stunned duo back to the 1800s to see Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) — remember him? that “short, dead dude”? — ready himself for battle. Quite a feat to witness, but things go haywire almost immediately and Napoleon ends up back in 1988 San Dimas. Bill and Ted see this as a most bodacious opportunity to create a killer history report. Why speak for the likes of So-crates* (Tony Steedman), Sigmund Frood* (Rod Loomis) and Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron) when they can speak for themselves?

Mass kidnapping commences, and then come the real laughs. Matheson and Solomon see fit to place all these conquerors, philosophers, adventurers and thinkers into the touchstone of ’80s culture: the shopping mall. Given this choice, the potential for comedy is limitless, and the culture clashes epic. Ludwig van Beeth-oven* (Clifford David) discovers the electronic keyboard and the joys of Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet”; Joan of Arc (Jane Wiedlin) muscles in on a Jazzercise class and Ghengis Khan (Al Leong) lays waste to dummies in a sports store. So-crates and Frood discover the difficulties inherent in picking up mall babes while wearing togas and tweed jackets. Elsewhere, Napoleon gets a second chance to conquer Waterloo, this time in the form of a water park populated by foes far shorter (and less intimidating) than the Seventh Coalition. Really, can anything top watching the world’s biggest legend in his own mind shove kids out of the way so he can blast down a waterslide? Seeing Freud psychoanalyze his arresting officer with “why are you so certain I’m not Freud?” runs a close second.

Matter of fact, it’s scenes like these that get right to the point of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” This is not a message movie or a treatise on ’80s consumerism/yuppie culture; it’s entertainment served straight-up. There is a point to Bill and Ted’s journey — something about them forming a band, Wyld Stallyns, whose music will change the world, and their realization that they need to, like, learn to play their guitars for that to happen — but that point never obscures perpetually quotable lines like “you medieval dickweed.” Or the radiantly funny moment where Ted attempts to “philosophize” Socrates with none other than the chorus from Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind.” Now that’s heavy.

Grade: B+

*Mispronunciation. It’s a pip.