What makes great art? Is great art that which sticks with you? Is great the movie/ novel/ painting that changes your perspective on life? Is it a work that can provide you with a sense of comfort and home when you’re feeling your worst? If so, then Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, without a doubt, great art.
Bill & Ted‘s Excellent Adventure has been my favorite movie since I was 10. In the intervening 14 years, I have watched and loved movies that are funnier, more artistically engaging, and if I’m honest, objectively better than Excellent Adventure, but what’s true of romantic love is also true of your favorite movie: it’s what means the most to you more than what’s objectively the best that matters. Of course, it helps that Bill & Ted is actually a truly outstanding movie.
Despite maintaining a following strong enough to warrant a comic book sequel 25 years after its release and its status as a cornerstone of 80’s nostalgia, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a movie that feels misunderstood and under-appreciated. Frequently in the shadow of fellow 80s time travel comedy Back to the Future, and aggravatingly written-off as a stoner comedy by terrible critics*, it’s rarely awarded the respect given to other comedies of its vintage. Yet, like the titular heroes, the goofball exterior of Excellent Adventure belies a warm, profound center.
It’s perhaps appropriate for a Valentine’s Day post that Bill & Ted is fantastic movie about love. Long before bromance entered the lexicon, it had found definition in Excellent Adventure. Bill & Ted celebrates platonic love in a way that still feels unique today. More than time travel shenanigans and the world-saving properties of cheesy 80s metal, the driving force of the movie is the friendship between one Bill S. Preston, esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan. The fate of the future depends upon the continued friendship of our heroes, and Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter make that believable. To detractors of Mr. Reeves’s acting, I point to the rapport he shares with Winter in this movie: watch the ease with which these two converse and tell me the man cannot act. The banter between the two proves equally infectious for audience and characters alike, as the trust and good-nature with which the duo greet the world spurs on the time and language barrier-defying friendship between Billy the Kid (Dan Shor) and Socrates (Tony Steedman). It’s an unparalleled screen friendship, the influence of which can be felt clearly in the modern crop of Apatow’s tales of man-children hanging out. Were this friendship the only reason I re-visit this movie at least once a year, I will still sing its praises from the hilltops. But lo, my love for Bill & Ted is a multifaceted one.
When I say that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a post-modern masterpiece, I am only slightly joking. If post-modernism is defined as the collision of high and low culture in the contemporary world, Bill & Ted fits the bill with aplomb. A good many time travel comedies are vehicles of nostalgia or for poking gentle fun at the past. Even Excellent Adventure‘s challenger to the 80s Time Travel Comedy throne Back to the Future revels in 50s iconography more than it parodies it. Excellent Adventure takes the past and lets it loose on the present like a bull in a china shop.
Despite time-hopping shenanigans, Excellent Adventure is a movie about a contemporary world (or at least 1988) of endless malls, shopping centers, and waterslides. To learn about the splendors of 1980s America, histories greatest figures (and Sigmund Freud) are taken to a shopping mall and make it a full ten minutes or so before they start a full-on riot. The movie finds glee in watching Beethoven playing over chintzy synth renditions of his compositions and in Genghis Kahn laying waste to a sporting goods store on a skateboard. Rather than portray the present and the status quo as safe harbor, Excellent Adventure treats it as an absurdist landscape to be ransacked. It’s a joke that gets funnier as you get older and endless stretches of shopping centers start to feel more isolating. Excellent Adventure both cherishes and satirizes a world where Waterloo is primarily known as a waterpark and Joan of Arc (The Go Go’s Jane Wiedlin) finds divine purpose in an aerobics class, a world for which Bill and Ted are heralds.
In all these words, I’ve only just scratched the surface of what this movie means to me, because it’s meant many different things over the past 14 years. Like all lasting romances, my love for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has grown, changed, and deepened with the years. It began as a kid when it introduced me to the wonders of George Carlin and instilled in me my guiding principles of “be excellent to each other” and “party on, dude!”. It gained definition as a teenager when jokes like Freud innocently eating a corndog finally made sense and my appetite for cult movies was most ravenous. It deepened when I was an undergrad film student and began turning a critical lens to the pop culture I loved. I get the feeling that my (non-bogus) journey** with Excellent Adventure hasn’t ended here, and that maybe in another 14 years I’ll be singing the praises of some other aspect of the movie in my quest to assure everyone appreciates as fervently as I do. Whether you do or not, you can be sure I’ll still be watching.
*Rolling Stone once featured the movie on a list of the best stoner comedies of all time; an astounding feat for a movie that makes not a single weed joke. I can only assume the author also considers Star Wars to be one of the most riveting farming dramas put to film.
**Oh man, I hope they let me write about Bogus Journey someday after this rambling mess.