“Bill & Ted Face the Music” sounds like more of a reckoning than it is. It would be unbearable to think that William Preston and Theodore Logan, the goofballs first incarnated by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves more than 30 years ago, could be candidates for cancellation. And though they may be longer in the tooth and heavier in the jowl than they used to be — as so many of us are — the dudes retain their essential innocence. They are still friendly avatars of nontoxic masculinity. No serious misdeeds resurface from their various time travels that demand judgment in the harsh light of the present.
Which isn’t to say that all heinousness has been banished. That was the promised outcome of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991) — the second of the earlier “Bill & Ted” movies — which ended on a high note of rock ’n’ roll utopianism. The universe was united in song and the future was secure. Somehow, it hasn’t worked out that way, either on a personal or a cosmic level.
Bill and Ted’s band, Wyld Stallyns (pronounced “wild stallions” for all you boomers and millennials who missed out the first time), has hit the skids, and so have the guys’ marriages. Their wives, Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hayes), serenely patient medieval English princesses, seek out couples therapy, to which the clueless husbands show up together.
That unbreakable bro-bond is one issue. Others are the guys’ stalled ambitions and a stubborn and implicit disavowal of maturity. While this arrested development frustrates Joanna and Elizabeth, it seems to endear Bill and Ted to their daughters, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving), shiny millennial apples who didn’t fall far from the Gen X tree.
These young women, who address each other as “dude,” might be better musicians than their dads. At any rate, they start out with a broader cultural frame of reference. And when an emissary from the future shows up with a dire warning — it’s Kristen Schaal, more or less filling George Carlin’s shoes — the younger B. and T. are sent into the past to recruit musical geniuses, while the elders are propelled forward to try to get their act together.
I don’t want to explain too much about the science or the metaphysics of the journey. It’s all spelled out clearly and none of it makes all that much sense. I will note that “Bill & Ted Face the Music” adapts to changes in both musical taste and time-travel mechanics. Rock (now known as dad rock) isn’t the universal solvent it once seemed to be, and chronological displacement isn’t a simple linear thing any more. Now there have to be multiple timelines and ever more complicated models of contingency. Bill and Ted may not fully understand it. The screenwriters, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, might not either. But it doesn’t really matter.
In the annals of late-20th-century dim-dude comedy, Bill and Ted occupy a special place. Beavis and Butt-Head were more abrasively satirical. Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar lived in a more fully realized social landscape. But Bill and Ted had more fun — capering through the centuries, meeting Freud and Socrates (both of whose names they mispronounced) and deriving a transcendently simple pair of lessons from their historical journeyings: “Be excellent to each other. Party on.”
Was it enough? Of course not. Bill and Ted belong to a generation so closely identified with failure as to be routinely erased from the record. The new movie, directed by Dean Parisot, is an amiable, sloppy attempt to reassert the value of friendliness and crack a few jokes along the way. The Wyld Stallyns bassist, Death (Bill Sadler), supplies a lot of those, as does a neurotic killer robot named Dennis (Anthony Carrigan).
Various historical figures pop up, most notably a supergroup recruited by Billie and Thea from ancient China and Africa as well as less ancient Vienna and New Orleans. Great musicians are needed to save reality from collapsing in on itself. The high point of the movie is a harpsichord and Stratocaster duet played by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Jimi Hendrix, a nicely conceived and executed demonstration of how genius recognizes genius.
That’s too strong a word to apply to “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” which like its predecessors is winningly modest and harmlessly silly. I don’t know if it made me feel young or old, but it was all in all a most non-bogus experience.
Bill & Ted Face the Music
Rated PG-13. Mild heinousness. Running time: 1 hour 18 minutes. Playing in select theaters. Rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.