It doesn’t take a rock star to realize that Bill and Ted are not the heroes we need now — but these musically inclined time-hopping doofuses who inspired a futuristic utopia in a pair of cult hits 30 years ago weren’t the heroes we needed then, either. “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” a cheerful new entry that follows the wide-eyed and empty-headed buddies into middle age, understands that well.
The delight of this long-gestating follow-up involves the ironic disconnect at the core of the franchise. Such blinkered stupidity couldn’t possibly save the universe, but there’s a fundamental joy to pretending otherwise. Resurrecting the fantasy of the earlier entries, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” doesn’t devolve into a pure nostalgia play. It’s just another “Bill & Ted” movie — kooky, surreal, and completely adherent to its own playbook. And that’s why, more or less, it works. Even when this fun mess of a movie lacks focus, rushing through cheeky celebrity cameos and half-baked gags, it does so with conviction. It’s a celebration of unfettered ridiculousness that bares its soul.
Dude! Decades after our boys first assembled everyone from Napoleon to Lincoln for help passing history class, then outwitted Death himself to win a totally epic Battle of the Bands, they’ve become … kind of lame. Once known as the totally tubular rock duo Wyld Stallyns, whose single “Those Who Rock” was supposed to unite the world, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) have basically aged into the dad-bod versions of the adventurers they once were, with the tales of their previous exploits dwindling to mere quixotic recollections that hardly anyone believes.
“Face the Music” doesn’t pretend those earlier sagas never happened; instead, it wastes no time passing the baton. The movie’s narrators are the pair’s daughters, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving), who seem as baffled and awestruck by the world as their dads — if a touch skeptical about their past exploits. They’re not alone, either. “Face the Music” finds Bill and Ted aging into cluelessness while the world moves on without them. In therapy with their medieval wives (Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes, opposite a hilariously befuddled Jillian Bell as the therapist), the men seem incapable of expressing individual affection for their frustrated spouses — they’ve spent so long looking at the world through the same dazed eyes that they never figured out how to look out through their own. Of course, when you’ve been musing about how we’re all dust in the wind, it can get a bit tricky to think for yourself.
Whatever, man. Bill and Ted have some baggage, but the universe has demands of its own. Reality has been unwinding, dropping historical figures in random timelines, as concern comes from a distant era that Bill and Ted might not write that special song to save humanity from obliteration. Enter Kelly (an ever-zany Kristen Schaal) who ports into modern times and takes the guys off to a cheap green-screen future where they learn the stakes at hand: In 78 minutes — hey, almost exactly the running time left in the movie — the duo will either write that song and save the world, or everything goes kaput. Those 78 minutes also make for quite the wry wink at the audience from a movie attuned to its limitations. The absurdity of “Bill & Ted” would never overstay its welcome.
It doesn’t take long before Bill and Ted start speeding through timelines in a phone booth, and their kids aren’t far behind. While the musicians stumble through a whole range of future mistakes, it’s Billie and Thea who engage in classic “Bill & Ted” historical revisionism, grabbing Jimi Hendrix and Beethoven from their respective eras to help assemble the ultimate awesome band. Bill and Ted, meanwhile, enter into a hilarious Dickensian plight that finds them confronting their future selves and the many mistakes they’re poised to make. The fate of the universe is at stake, again, but this time it’s personal. With loaded cheesy disguises sure to fuel a thousand memes, the characters age many times over and make it clear that no amount of stone-faced “John Wick” sequels could ruin Reeves’ investment in the goofiness that put him on the map.
Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon have been living with these characters since the Reagan era, and slide so naturally into their cadences that it’s almost as if they froze time. But the real victory belongs to Reeves and Winter (the latter making a triumphant return to acting after pivoting to documentary years ago), whose chemistry is both poignant and a punchline in every scene. The actors relax into these archetypes as if they never stopped playing them. (Their air-guitar pantomimes still slay, and when a startled Winter whispers to Reeves “Dude … the future” in one scene, that’s it, that’s the whole joke, and you had better believe it lands.)
“Face the Music” allows its young heroines to take charge, with Lundy-Paine and Weaving doing fine work in the limited caricatures at their disposal, but the movie still belongs to its wandering buddies. It retains the sincere appreciation for male friendship that made the earlier entries so distinctive: It’s not deep enough to parse the connotations of their bond, but relishes the possibility that it could still exist all these years down the line.
It took years to get this project off the ground, and the movie would never make sense at a big studio today. That works in its favor, as the lo-fi CGI aesthetic retains the cartoony self-awareness of the originals. Also, like the originals, the premise can only carry it so far. By the time Bill and Ted return to Hell for a fateful reunion with Death (William Sadler reprises his role), the movie can’t help but feel like a routine as it spews out fragments of comedic material — from a soul-searching robot to a prehistoric drummer — that don’t quite have room to breathe. The movie’s so intent on rushing along that the barrage of jokes grow fuzzy and indistinct in the third act (Kid Cudi spouting theoretical physics might be funny the first time, but the gag gets stale.) The movie arrives at its giddy finale with an ebullient shrug (not to mention an uninspired Arcade Fire ripoff) but hey, it was fun while it lasted.
“Face the Music” is a giant party of a movie, made all the more gratifying by the way it sits at odds with the divisive moment that greets its release. Things may be dire (in this movie and IRL) but Bill and Ted’s unbridled enthusiasm as their stumbles through daunting circumstances turn gleeful ignorance into a form of escapism. Their biggest takeaway (“Maybe we should always not know what we’re doing!”) doesn’t reach the same quotable sagacity of “Be excellent to each other,” but it’s on the same continuum. A little stupid idealism can go a long way, and “Face the Music” makes the case that morons can come together to set the world right. Talk about movie magic.
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