There’s no reason Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure should have worked like it did in 1989. A comedy about two sweetly stupid buds who time travel through history? Abraham Lincoln espousing, “Party on, dudes”? Air guitar? Of course, the trick of the movie is that it only pretends to be dumb and is actually made by very intelligent people who knew exactly what they had on their hands. It’s a smart, funny script, well-directed, and performed with maximum charm by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves in star-making roles. As much of a miracle as the movie is, there’s even less reason that the 1991 sequel should exist, much less that it should be even more ambitious, more imaginative, and, dare I say, better than its predecessor. And yet that’s exactly what Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is.
There are a dozen worlds and hundreds of pitch meetings in which Bogus Journey follows the traditional comedy sequel route of delivering more of the same: “Bill & Ted have another assignment due! Time to climb back into the phone booth to round up some more historical figures!” Instead, returning screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and director Peter Hewitt go bigger and weirder for the second part, throwing in evil robots, alien races, the Grim Reaper, the Easter Bunny, a visit to both Heaven and Hell, and a Battle of the Bands. The result is one of the most inventive studio comedies of the last three decades, really putting the “anything goes” approach of its predecessor to the test and coming out way ahead.
Talking about everything the movie does right would more than likely just consist of listing all the stuff in it, from the soundtrack to the colorful production design to the makeup effects to joke after joke after joke (except, of course, for the one right before Bill and Ted get thrown off a cliff—a repeat of the worst joke from Excellent Adventure). I love Bogus Journey’s ability to top itself, so we go from the scene in which the boys possess Ted’s dad into the scene where they’re falling forever and playing 20 questions into their arrival in Hell. Most comedies wish for just one sequence as good as any of these. Bogus Journey just piles them on one after another. The whole sequence in Hell, more or less the centerpiece of the movie, is a triumph of imagination and design, offering a vision of the afterlife unlike anything we’ve seen in movies before or since.
Ah, but then the film segues right into the showdown with Death (William Sadler, stealing the movie out from under everyone) and reaches yet another level of comic genius. It was this sequence that convinced critics back in 1991 to take the movie more seriously than they otherwise would have: any comedy that’s this goofy, but referencing Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal must surely be worthy of consideration, yes? You don’t need to spot the reference to appreciate how funny the scene is (“You have suuunk my Battleship!”), but it does help clue you in to just how smart Solomon and Matheson’s screenplay is.
What has always driven the series—and is the reason, I suspect, we’re getting a second sequel (Bill & Ted Face the Music) almost 30 years later—is the friendship between Bill S. Preston, Esq., and Ted “Theodore” Logan. Having purged the brief “falling out” from their system in the first film, the filmmakers are free to celebrate the inseparable bond between the two buds, which is sweet and pure and endlessly sincere. Their positivity is infectious, their life philosophy a tonic for our contemporary worries. The performances by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are the very epitome of winning. They’re funny and self-aware, but never winking or distancing themselves from the characters—they don’t play so much as become these guys. The only roles Winter and Reeves appear to have more fun playing than Bill and Ted are Evil Bill and Evil Ted, carrying over all the sweetness and positivity, but applying those qualities to deeds that are most heinous (“Aim for the cat!”).
It’s hard to believe we had to wait just two years for Bill & Ted to return to the screen after Excellent Adventure and have now had to wait almost 30 for them to come back again. Patience, as they say, is a virtue, and I have every reason to expect it will be worth the wait. In the meantime, we can celebrate their previous cinematic outings and sing—or better yet, rock—the praises of the wildly original Bogus Journey. Equal parts sweet, clever, and insane, it’s the kind of audacious studio comedy that no longer really exists. In the midst of all the insanity, there’s a message we need to hear, too. Be a good person. Don’t do your homework without wearing your headphones. Listen to rock music. Love each other. There’s nothing bogus about that. Station.
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