a photo fro mBill & Ted Face the Music
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Bill and Ted’s Excellent Midlife Crisis

Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are back as the beloved time-traveling duo known for their kindness and decency—just when the world needed them most.

If you hopped inside a telephone booth and traveled back through the space-time continuum to your first encounter with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you might be surprised to discover that its early scenes were, to paraphrase our heroes, totally bogus. In Bill & Ted vernacular, bogus doesn’t mean “counterfeit,” it means “bummer, dude,” and in the original 1989 film, their excellent adventure is set in motion by some seriously dark domestic stuff. Those bits go by fast, though, and they might not have seemed so dark at the time—assuming your first viewing of the smash-hit time-travel comedy (budget: $10 million, box office: $40 million) was closer to the late 1980s than to 2020. It was a different era. Phone booths were everywhere.

Ted’s father is a cop, an angry, belittling police captain, disgusted with his floppy-puppy son and ready to ship him off to military school, where they’ll make a real man out of him, or at least get him away from his nitwit friend Bill. Keanu Reeves was cast as Ted when he was 22 years old, and his tense scenes with Ted’s dad are unsettling to watch now. He doesn’t roll his eyes or fight back—he flinches. Ted’s scared of his father. “When I first played the role,” Reeves told me last week, “I was thinking about this kind of character and personality”—sweet, guileless, harmless—“that’s born out of pain.”

Bill’s dad, meanwhile, is a creep. He’s a stubby professor who traded in Bill’s mother for one of his students, a busty, blonde former high-school classmate of Bill’s. He gropes her in front of his son, and throughout their scenes together, Bill, played by Alex Winter, looks as if he’s about to gag. “Your mom’s super hot, dude,” Ted teases him. “Shut up, Ted,” Bill seethes, humiliated.

After 31 years, one big-screen sequel (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), one short-lived animated TV series (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures), and one sugary breakfast cereal (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal), Bill and Ted are back, and now they’re dads. But when we catch up with William S. Preston, Esq., and Ted “Theodore” Logan in the trilogy’s capstone, Bill & Ted Face the Music, time has done a number on them. Bill has weary, sunken eyes and a dad bod. Ted’s curtains of metal hair are as black as ever, but they’ve crept a bit north on his forehead, as if his mind has been blown too many times. And just as Ted’s father foretold, Bill and Ted have not amounted to anything. Not only did they fail to write the song that would unite the world, as prophesied at the end of Bogus Journey, but pop music has left them in the dust. Their guitar-shredding metal band, Wyld Stallyns, is super lame now. The culture war is over. Bill and Ted lost.

So then why, exactly, are Bill and Ted back? After all, if a song really is waiting to be written in 2020 that can save the entire world, it’s not coming from these two. Bill and Ted aren’t the men for the job, and maybe they never were.

The list of franchises with a decades-long pause between installments is very short. It’s pretty much The Godfather, Indiana Jones … and Bill & Ted. One of these, obviously, is not like the others. And while the first two Bill & Ted installments were hits, they weren’t blockbusters, and they didn’t leave audiences wanting more. By the end of Bogus Journey, we were done with the duo. We bid them a fond adieu and lowered them into the time capsule.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure came out at a moment when America seemed to be in dire need of a crash course on decency and kindness. Voters had sanctioned eight years of the law-and-order conservative Ronald Reagan with the election of the ex-CIA director George Bush, who secured his four years by painting his opponent as a bookish New England pansy who was soft on crime. Wall Street came out in 1987, Michael Douglas won an Oscar in early 1988 for playing Gordon Gekko, and by 1989, when we first met Bill and Ted, greed was officially good. Every kid onscreen was a latchkey kid. Every Hollywood comedy at the time was a divorce comedy, because everyone in America had gotten divorced. It was just what you did after you got married in those days.

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The original Bill & Ted movie made Keanu Reeves a star. He was so natural as Ted that many people to this day think the actor is an airhead, rather than the philosopher king he actually is off camera. That same year, he played a doomed lover in 18th-century French royal court, opposite John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, but all viewers could see was time-traveling Ted, out of his element yet again. Reeves seemed to connect with Ted on an elemental level. From the start, he saw that Ted was kind of a sad kid beneath his genial surface, and that his insistence on being kind was an act of rebellion against the bully in his house.

“Considering what a light movie it is, and how light it felt to us to create it, there’s actually a lot of darkness and pain in it,” said the film’s co-screenwriter Chris Matheson during a three-way phone interview with his longtime writing partner, Ed Solomon.

Tyrannical police captains and lecherous professors don’t play on-screen today the way they used to. They represent a whole power structure now, and as a society, we’ve grown more wise to the systems of permission that protect men like them. Back in the ’80s, though, Bill’s and Ted’s dads were just garden-variety crummy fathers. They didn’t represent anything. Matheson and Solomon weren’t trying to inject social commentary. In that era of Hollywood, broken families and toxic masculinity were less than subtext, they were just there—omnipresent, barely acknowledged. When you watch Bill’s and Ted’s scenes with their fathers now, though, that’s all you can see.

Matheson and Solomon were the original Bill and Ted, and the floral elocution the inventors imagined for their characters was a pastiche of Peter Sellers, Damon Runyon, and the sunny SoCal drawl of San Dimas, where high-school football ruled. Excellent Adventure’s most iconic line, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K,” is practically iambic pentameter. The way Bill and Ted talk to each other is the music of their friendship, which in turn remains the core of their enduring appeal—their bottomless affection for each other, their openhearted faith that simply being nice will fix everything.

That theory has taken some hits in recent years. American faith in the power of decency, in fact, might be at its lowest-ever ebb. Matheson and Solomon didn’t set out to write a movie for our times—the ball got rolling more than a decade ago over a nostalgic dinner with Reeves and Winter, they told me. “But nobody really seemed interested until just a few years ago,” Solomon said.

“Maybe we were lucky that the movie took this long,” he went on. “Because it does feel like, if there’s any time for a couple of guys who sincerely believe in the need to be excellent to each other, now is definitely that time.”

The new film opens with what may be Wyld Stallyns’ final gig: a wedding uniting Bill’s and Ted’s families in very unholy matrimony. Here at the end of the trilogy, the Preston and Logan patriarchs are facing some music too. In a speech to the wedding party, their sons fill us in on all the intra-family shagging since the end of Bogus Journey: Bill’s ex-classmate stepmother wound up leaving Bill’s father for Ted’s father, whom she then left for Ted’s brother.

In the original, Excellent Adventure, the father-son scenes aren’t funny. If there are any laughs, they’re nervous ones. Even Ted’s wisecrack about Bill’s stepmom is a little below the belt for Bill & Ted. In Face the Music, the transgressions of Bill’s and Ted’s boomer-era dads are not just played for laughs—they’re the punch line. The beautiful union they are here to celebrate, Bill notes cheerfully from the stage, “makes Ted his own uncle!” And more excellently, Ted points out, it “makes my dad his own son!” Everyone guffaws. Mr. Preston is still a bully, but now he comes off more like an old man shouting at a cloud. Pop culture has spent the intervening decades learning that you defang bullies by turning them into the butt of the joke.

At some point in Bill and Ted’s post-phenomenon phase, when the franchise was settling into a nice retirement as a beloved artifact of its very specific era, the series’ creators finally realized that Bill and Ted do not have mothers, and that their absence is never explained. In fact, the movie featured no notable female characters, period. The only two in the whole saga (besides Joan of Arc, who got to say a few lines in French) were the two bodacious princesses from medieval England whom Bill and Ted smuggled back to the present, like a matching set of interstellar mail-order brides. Not exactly a progressive plotline for the #MeToo era. “Bill and Ted were adolescent boys and written by adolescent boys,” Solomon said, “because Chris and I were essentially adolescent boys.” It was time to grow up.

Matheson and Solomon got married, had kids, had successes and failures, then got older some more and began confronting the ways that their lives, for better and for worse, didn’t go how they’d planned. They got wise about their privilege, in life and in Hollywood. They reflected on how and why it was possible for them to have a hit franchise without noticing they forgot to put any women in it. And along the way, they processed the bittersweet truth that a more just, more equal future would mean less room for aging white male comedy writers like them. Each passing year, the idea of catching up with Bill and Ted, and exploring how they navigated those same challenges, the same feelings of obsolescence, made them laugh harder. It also started to sound like a movie. What if Bill and Ted were lost, adrift, searching for purpose in a fast-changing world? What if they were jolted by a crisis, something that forced them to get their shit together before it was too late? And what if their journey mirrored that of their co-creators—what if their time was up, but they didn’t know it yet?

What if middle age, in other words, had turned Bill and Ted into the perfect comic heroes for Donald Trump’s America: just two more mediocre men who think they are destined to save the world.

At the very end of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, our dear boys become fathers. It’s the resolution to an existential plotline with nods to Ingmar Bergman: Bill and Ted get murdered by evil Bill and Ted and must defeat the Grim Reaper in a series of board games to escape back to the world of the living; Bill’s and Ted’s ex-royal wives give birth to children named, naturally, Bill and Ted. Viewers are left to assume that the young Bill and Ted are boys—which is what Matheson and Solomon, who wrote the scene, imagined as well—and that everyone lived happily ever after.

When we meet baby Bill and baby Ted in Face the Music, though, they are now young women named Billie and Theodora—daughters forged in their fathers’ image: sunny and generous, best friends for life, but also jobless and adrift. They’ve inherited their dads’ passion for music, but unlike Bill and Ted, whose teenage tastes were narrow and parochial (white), Billie and Thea’s knowledge is diverse and encyclopedic. They’re big fans of the pan flute, Mongolian throat singing, and the phrases of Coltrane. Their love for music is openhearted, and open-minded. (Their names are also reversed: Billie is Ted’s daughter; Thea is Bill’s.)

“We came from a time when there was metal and hair bands, and that’s no longer here,” Winter told me. “Now we live in a culture where, because of technology, everything is available at all times. I thought the writers handled that in a really clever way, by having our daughters really interested in … a mash-up of different styles. That’s the world our daughters are coming from.” (The generational gracenotes include a third daughter character: Kristen Schaal co-stars as the child of Rufus, Bill and Ted’s father figure from the future, who was played by the late George Carlin.)

Over the course of Face the Music, while their dads scour the future for versions of themselves who don’t wind up divorced losers (no such luck), Billie and Thea travel back in time to help out their dads by assembling the greatest backing band of all time, a repeat of the historical scavenger hunt from Excellent Adventure, only this time with a risky whiff of cultural appropriation. You might wince as Billie and Thea collect Louis Armstrong first, then Jimi Hendrix, but their efforts build to a worthy purpose, and the scenes glide by thanks to the breezy chemistry of Samara Weaving, who plays the stoner savant Thea, and Brigette Lundy-Paine, the nonbinary actor who does a spot-on Ted 2.0 as Billie.

Bill and Ted, middle-aged, with daughters Thea (Samara Weaving) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) in Bill and Ted Face The Music. (United Artists / Entertainment Pictures / Alamy)

Middle-aged Bill’s and Ted’s exasperated wives, meanwhile, are forced into a reckoning of their own. Their sweet adoring husbands, bless their hearts, are turning into houseplants, and their friendship has gone way past co-dependent. The four of them even do couples therapy together. (Bill: “We’re a couple of couples!”) For so long, their husbands have been trying, and failing, to write the song that saves the world, but saving the world is so last century. This time around, Bill and Ted need to save their marriages first.

Or as Reeves put it to me, they need to start giving their family the same love and support they give their friendship. In the film’s early scenes, Reeves went on, “the daughters are helping to support Bill and Ted. The wives are supporting.” Along the way, the men learn to flip the script. “We’re trying to be better for them.” The movie’s parallel plots, in which their daughters race back in time to collect their all-star lineup, and their wives search the future for signs of happiness with their husbands, converge on Bill and Ted and force them to confront the real conundrum in their lives: Now what?

Bill & Ted Face the Music is very funny, and very sweet, and yes, I may have even cried a little at the end. It strikes a deeper chord than the first two movies, though, because it’s about something real. It’s about what happens when Bills and Teds, and Billies and Theas, are nurtured as kids, encouraged to hurl themselves into their passions, and taught to be excellent to one another along the way. That’s the journey this time—finding your purpose in life and accepting that it might be more humble than the High Council had led you to believe. That your true purpose might be to serve someone else’s purpose.