Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a hilarious and hopeful tale of friendship, full of great dialogue and memorable scenes. It is also a terrible history lesson. Well, depending on what angle you choose to view history. The film certainly doesn’t pause to get all the details right as Bill and Ted traverse the Circuits of History in their time machine, “bagging” influential human beings for help on their high school final project. There are those in any given audience that will always shake their head at an Abraham Lincoln who speaks in an inaccurate baritone (shh, don’t tell anyone but he also yells, “Party on, dudes!”) but in its way, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure does accurately capture history.
The film is an accurate account of pop culture’s conception of historic times, in particular a century’s worth of cinema. In this light, of course a visit to the Wild West will feature a knock-down, drag-out saloon fight, while medieval England will result in damsels-in-distress and swashbuckling escapades. This is the only lens of history two well-meaning idiots could stumble through. The film’s superior sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, will make this connection even more explicit with direct references to arthouse classics A Matter of Life and Death and The Seventh Seal.
Additionally, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure now serves as its own time capsule for life in the 1980s. Part of this is clearly by design. Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon’s slyly intelligent script is obsessed with highlighting and dissecting the prevailing mall culture of the decade. But embedded in the film are also bits of pop culture and technology whose eventual irrelevance could not have been as easily foreseen, like the now-anachronistic use of tape recorders and video cameras. Hell, the time-traveling phone booth at the film’s center is just as much a relic nowadays as its inspiration: Doctor Who’s iconic police box, the TARDIS. (The spitting image of my mom’s long-gone grey Subaru Loyale is parked in the Circle K lot when Rufus shows up.)
Beyond the film’s depiction of history and the reflection of its own era, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is also one of the very few comedies in Keanu Reeves’ career. Three decades after the film’s release, Reeves’ résumé has narrowed considerably. His filmography is littered with science fiction and action films — many of which are certainly funny in their own ways — but there is a dearth of flat-out comedies. Early on, Reeves was given the opportunity to take many more risks. Some were successful (Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho), others not so much (Much Ado About Nothing). As Ted “Theodore” Logan, Reeves is terrific. Whether he’s cracking an infectious smile or intoning the appropriate sense of stoner wonder to his line readings, he exudes the effervescent energy that would compel a history teacher to give someone who has flunked every other area of their course just one more chance.
(Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure plays at the Central Cinema 7/10-7/15)