Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) are not stoners, but they do seem like they could and maybe even should be, which is why Reeves felt compelled to clarify the point in a recent interview. Pot feels like such a handy explanation for the characters’ indomitable state of dazed good-naturedness, even when confronted with time-travel and the afterlife, that the association has lingered even though the pair never actually smoke any of it. Bill and Ted are the most wholesome of a run of late-’80s-early-’90s dirtbag duos like Beavis and Butthead and Wayne and Garth, but they’re also relics of a stretch of time in which California stereotypes alone could amount to half of a premise for a film or a TV show. The joke at the center of the Bill & Ted franchise is that two genial doofuses from the San Gabriel Valley turn out to be the most important people in all of humanity, and because of that, the high points of history and metaphysics get filtered through the cultural contourlessness of a sunny SoCal suburb.
It’s a joke that’s held up unconscionably well over the years. The pleasures of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey have endured, a few tossed-off homophobic slurs aside, because of how unapologetically silly the movies are. They’re about saving the world, but there’s so little urgency to them that the way Bill & Ted Face the Music has stumbled into existence nearly three decades later comes across as entirely fitting. The new movie, from director Dean Parisot and returning screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, picks up with Bill and Ted still in San Dimas, where they’ve grown into fathers and husbands who live next door to one another on a serene cul-de-sac. They’ve traded young concerns about passing history class and winning a Battle of the Bands for middle-aged ones like shaky marriages and fears about being failures. But Bill & Ted Face the Music doesn’t use the years as an excuse to swerve into grittier territory. Instead, it underscores the sweetness at the core of its main relationship. Bill and Ted are two guys who love hard rock, the word “dude,” and each other’s company, something that hasn’t changed just because the times have.
What’s also remained a constant is their questionable talent. The movie opens at the most recent wedding for Missy (Amy Stock-Poynton), who was first Bill’s and then Ted’s young stepmother, where the two men play a song that isn’t remotely appropriate for the first dance, but that does involve enthusiastic theremin and throat singing. Most people set aside their longings for rock stardom after a few years of struggle, but Bill and Ted have been assured that their band, Wyld Stallyns, is destined to usher in a global utopia with their music. 29 years and an explanatory montage later, they’re still floundering, while time and space have started falling apart in the absence of a universe-unifying bop. When Kristen Schaal beams in from the future as Kelly — daughter of Rufus, the character played by the late George Carlin in the first two films — Bill and Ted soon find themselves back in the phone booth, sending themselves forward in hopes of getting a copy of the killer song they were supposed to come up with from their older selves, who they assume have written it already.
The pair’s former medieval princess wives, now played by Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays, start bouncing around on some mostly offscreen temporal adventures of their own. And then their daughters, Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Theodora “Thea” Preston (Samara Weaving), embark on a quest that turns out to be more essential to the developing crisis. Billie and Thea, cheery 20-something failchildren whose friendship rivals that of their dads, aren’t clearly drawn as characters beyond the obvious parallels, though Lundy-Paine manages the incredible trick of coming across more like Reeves in the original films than present-day Reeves does. It’s the two men who remain the heart of this winningly haphazard endeavor, and they’re at their best playing off themselves, meeting different Bills and Teds across the years and, as would probably be true for all of us, not always getting along with them.
Bill & Ted Face the Music serves up some celebrity cameos and some familiar faces — William Sadler as a parody of The Seventh Seal’s Death remains an absurd and wonderful creation. Nostalgia is an unavoidable part of the movie’s appeal, though it mostly manages to avoid wince-worthy pandering. The most successful quality of the film is how close it keeps in spirit and haphazard style to the first two installments, and how it feels proudly unstuck in time. Then again, so are its characters, whose type and slang and taste in music feels long past. Maybe that context wasn’t all that important, anyway. How much context do you need to understand the fantasy of being told that your wistful pipe dreams actually matter, not just to you, but to the world? Excellent.