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Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, directed by Stephen Herek, 1988, 90 min.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is the ultimate example of lowbrow culture. Contempt can be poured on this movie without end, especially as it has to bear partial responsibility for the crassest of all current types of movies, the teen comedy. But it has remained a favourite because it is good-hearted, not mean-spirited, and the gags flow from fondness of the characters not condescension, and it's still entertaining. Bill and Ted's doesn't have much critical value, and I'm in no way attempting to claim it as a masterpiece for the ages. But it's an amusing flick, relatively well constructed, in a time when the basic craftsmanship of comedy in film is an increasingly forgotten art.

Bill and Ted are students at San Dimas High in 1988. They are not brightest bulbs academically, so when they are faced with the prospect of a history project that they have no idea of how to finish, they are desperate. Worse, Ted's father is going to send him to military school in Alaska if he flunks out of school, and he's guaranteed to flunk out of school if he doesn't get an A+ on that history project. Rufus, a time-travelling figure from the future, has already told us in a prologue that the happiness of his era (San Dimas, 2688) depends on Bill and Ted graduating high school. Rufus arrives in 1988 with a time machine in the shape of a phone booth, and our shockingly inappropriate heroes are off on a romp throughout history. They know next to nothing about the historical people they are meeting, which is part of the fun. If someone who had studied Socrates and Freud were to go back in history, the resulting conversation would be edifying but not much of an entertaining movie. And the sacrilege of it! Bill and Ted lure Genghis Khan into the phone booth with a Twinkie and lasso Freud from the streets of Vienna. They couldn't ask any of these "historical personages" an intelligent question if their lives depended on it but they turn out to be gracious hosts. Back in San Dimas Mall, Bill makes sure nobody will get lost: "Ok, everybody, find your buddy."

The historical periods visited by Bill and Ted are, in order: Austria in 1805, where Napoleon gets accidentally taken along; New Mexico in 1879, where the phone booth takes Billy the Kid, a card-cheat, away from an angry mob; Athens, Greece in 410 BC, where Bill and Ted "philosophize" with Socrates; England in the 15th century, a longer stay, where Bill and Ted don't pick up anybody, not even two princesses; Vienna in 1901, where Freud gets lassoed; Kassel, Germany in 1810, where they grab Beethoven; Orleans, France in 1429, where Joan of Arc apparently misinterprets the magic phone booth as a message from God; Outer Mongolia in 1209, where Genghis Khan is tempted by the aforementioned Twinkie; The White House in 1863, a time when Lincoln was in office; San Dimas in 1,000,000 BC for some repairs; and then back to San Dimas for the concluding half hour of the movie.

Part of the history project is to talk about what important historical figures would think of San Dimas in 1988. In a sequence filled with inspired lunacy, all of the characters are loose in the San Dimas Mall, and they all get arrested. Bill and Ted have to pull off a jailbreak but they have the advantage of a time machine. As long as they remember to later go back in time and steal the keys and put it where they say they will put it, everything will be fine. Once all of the obstacles have been overcome, Bill and Ted present their history project to a receptive audience at the school gym. I wasn't as impressed with the final presentation as some of the school kids, but it was an inevitable denouement.

Bill and Ted are stereotypes, inhabited with exuberance but shallow all the same, and the movie relies on the broadest of conventional representations of the famous people. As for Keanu Reeves, he has been fighting accusations for the rest of his career that he is simply reprising his role as Ted. That is partly true, but it's also true that it takes a certain charm to pull off a teen comedy like this one; witness the vast wasteland of the genre today.

The time travel aspects of the movie are subsumed into the general sense of anarchic fun. The historical personages are mainly treated as a source of visual gags, such as the sight of Genghis Khan, Sigmund Freud, and Socrates let loose in a modern mall or Napoleon elbowing little kids out of the way imperiously in a water park. The mechanics of time travel don't upset Bill and Ted, and they happily think up new variations on how the phone booth can help them, such as the previously mentioned jailbreak scene. I also got a few chuckles from their cheerful way of dealing with time travel dilemmas. In most time travel movies, the last thing you want to do is meet yourself coming or going; Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure treats this moment of existential angst much differently. Bill of the present asks, "Who are you guys?" Whereupon Ted of the future says, "We're you, dude!" Succinct, and hilarious, as are most such moments in the movie. Again, I'm not arguing for any kind of critical weight for the movie, but I am surprised to find that it is still so entertaining and good-natured after all these years.

DVD Note: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is available on DVD, but it's a bare-bones affair, rather meagre by today's 2 or 4 DVD standards. The DVD has the movie itself, chapter divisions, and the theatrical trailer.


Last modified: February 20, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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