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It’s been a tough quarter-century for Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted “Theodore” Logan. Yes, these friends most triumphantly passed high-school history by traveling through time in a futuristic phone booth and swept a pair of bodacious princesses off their feet while doing it, then Twistered and Battleshipped their way out of the Grim Reaper’s clutches and seemed to usher in utopian paradise through the power of their songcraft. But middle-age ennui is an entirely different air guitar, one that’s tough to keep in tune.
That’s the familiar hook on which screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon hang Bill and Ted Face the Music. Opening at select theaters on Friday and also available through video-on-demand services, this is Matheson and Solomon’s long-in-the-works capper to a franchise they created in 1988 that also jump-started the careers of Alex Winter, who plays Bill, and Keanu Reeves, who plays Ted. (Among this installment’s many executive producers? Steven Soderbergh, illustrating that there is truly no charitable cinematic gift this man would not try to bestow upon us.) It would suffice for Winter and Reeves to revive their dopily delightful proto-Jay and Silent Bob friendship. The actors are certainly here to endear, but the pair also locks into a soul-sick woe of pals who have pursued their passion and purported purpose for so long with so little to show for it.
As the rock ‘n’ roll duo Wyld Stallyns, Bill and Ted believed their ’90s anthem “Those Who Rock” would be their gateway to rock megastardom (and that future utopia). But the band quickly went from Buzz Bin to clearance rack, leaving Bill and Ted beating their heads against the wall ever since trying to recapture their musical mojo. A comic bit in couples counseling offers as much, if not more, emotional triage for these heterosexual lifemates as it does for their respective wives (played here by Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes). At least these parents have managed to sire two good-human daughters: Theodora “Thea” Preston (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who share their dads’ agreeable dispositions but have easily surpassed them in both emotional intelligence and musical knowledge.
Just as Ted threatens to sell his prized Les Paul, the friends once again encounter a visitor from the 28th century. Kelly (Kristen Schaal), the daughter of their OG mentor Rufus, comes bearing bogus news: Bill and Ted have 77 minutes to write and produce that savior song to prevent a collapse of space and time. That’s the end of the world in whoa terms. There are already some rather concerning temporal anomalies, such as Kid Cudi swapping seats with Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. And if Bill and Ted’s latest theremin, trumpet, bagpipe and throat-singing opus offers any indication, mankind is most boned.
But given another time-hopping phone booth to help them, Bill and Ted decide to track down the future thems who have already written this song, get their hands on a copy and save the universe. This allows Bill and Ted to debate the ethics of stealing as-yet-unwritten IP from their future selves and squeeze Winter and Reeves into a series of outstanding makeup jobs from Kevin Yagher. Lending some additional structure to the anything-goes nuttiness of the unfairly maligned sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, this threequel offers a series of encounters with progressively sadder, older and angrier — but rarely wiser — versions of Bill and Ted. (One incarnation finds the duo bearing a hilariously horrifying resemblance to Street Fighter characters.) Indeed, Bill and Ted have leveled up from confronting Evil Robot Uses to Manipulative Human Uses, whom we all know can be far more formidable and nefarious foes.
To reveal too many more details would ruin the sure-footed ways in which Face the Music deftly resurrects and remixes elements of both Bogus Journey and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure while forgoing the sloppier side of fan service. This means reviving some incidents and returning some characters such as the Grim Reaper, whose long-simmering grievances with our heroes let William Sadler pluck new notes of nudnik behavior under this bickerer’s pale skin.
However, Face the Music also has a variety of new aces in the hole. Director Dean Parisot brings considerable comedic sophistication here that the previous films lacked, having helmed Galaxy Quest as well as multiple episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Grim Reaper’s Laurel Canyon-esque mansion in hell overlooks a scorched landscape of misery and pain, an uproarious clashing-aesthetic joke sold almost exclusively by the way Parisot has blocked the scene and his sense for well-timed visual effects. Weaving and Lundy-Paine offer note-perfect generational and gender-swapped versions of Winter and Reeves, respectively. (“They’re in a tribulation, aren’t they?” Billie asks of their dads’ predicament, with Lundy-Paine taking on the perfect affectation of Reeves’ vocal fry.) The best of the bunch is Anthony Carrigan as Dennis, whose occupational responsibility as it pertains to Bill and Ted goes horribly awry in ways that spin into existential crisis. It’s another uproarious mix of misplaced aggression and mounting anxiety from Carrigan, who kills it here nearly as much as he does playing Chechen mafioso NoHo Hank on HBO’s Barry.
With all these swirling subplots and more, Face the Music is easily the franchise’s busiest installment; as it turns out, Bill and Ted aren’t the only ones slingshotting across 14,000 years of epochal time. And while its biggest plot turn is obvious from 15 minutes in, it’s nevertheless resonant and rooted in the sort of wisdom that can only come from the age and experience that Face the Music’s actors and architects have accrued since the early 1990s: It’s not about always saving the day but always pointing the way. That might lack the enduring zing and zip of “Be excellent to each other,” but Face the Music definitely delivers the smile-inducing sweetness that this shortened cinematic summer sorely needs.