Sunday, April 01, 2007:

White Elephant Blogathon: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

This post is part of the White Elephant film Blogathon, in which volunteers throw a movie suggestion into the hat for someone else to review. The only restriction was that the movie be widely available; and the implication was that most of them would be bad because bloggers could already use their site to review good movies. I ignored that implication, as I didn't have the heart to recommend a film I thought was truly bad; instead I recommended one I thought was quite good but somewhat obscure.

And in return I got Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. I'd remembered it fondly, but I'd last seen it in high school, when it probably spoke to me more, and I'd seen it with a group of friends, which can shore up a mediocre comedy. It's a truism that actors in a comedy should act as if they're in a drama; else the comedy becomes less about situation than about actors showing out. The performances here are oversold and the timing poor, each joke delivered with a wink and a beat after it as if to slot in a laugh track. This is not Howard Hawks direction with a Ben Hecht script, though the script does have potential.

The story is about two exceptionally ignorant and lazy but good-natured bad musicians who are on the verge of failing their history class and, hence, flunking out of high school. At a convenience store the night before they have to give the history presentation that could help them pass the class, a phone booth falls from the sky. In it is a man named Rufus who came from the future and takes them back in time to see Napoleon Bonaparte. From there Bill and Ted jaunt through history collecting historical figures and nearly getting killed in various ways. If Ted doesn't graduate he'll be sent to military school, so it's clear why they want to get a good grade on the presentation, but it's less clear why they have any interest in being musicians since it's clear they never practice.

The movie has a few moments that work and a lot more that don't; for every nice touch like Napoleon cheating on his bowling score there are more attempted jokes which fall flat, such as the notion that Joan of Arc is Noah's wife. Many of the scenes may have worked on paper but don't work on screen; in one of them, Bill's father and stepmother kick Bill out of his room so they can get it on. The scene could have been very funny if handled right; instead it just seemed like a scene that could have been very funny if handled right. And some of the other jokes would have been better left for the viewer to discover, like Bill's Oedipus complex.

It's disorienting in a comedy to wonder if the cleverest jokes were intended as jokes--Rufus goes back in time to ensure that the past happens as it should, yet rather than going back in time far enough to allow Bill and Ted to research and prepare a proper presentation, he goes back to the night before it's due. Research would make for a dull comedy (or a much more cerebral comedy than the screenwriter wanted), so Rufus' choice may be a narrative necessity, or it may be a subtle joke about the culture Bill and Ted have inspired, in which everything is done at the last minute. (If I remember right, Bill and Ted devise a similar solution in the sequel, just before the competition when they still don't know how to play guitar: they go back in time to practice, then return to just a few seconds after they left.) The clever joke, or perhaps plot hole, is that Bill and Ted spend all night traveling through time rather than sleeping and that staying up all night would render most people exhausted and inarticulate, yet they are more eloquent in their presentation than they ever have been before.

I wondered more than once if the film were actually a personal fantasy written by a young man in high school with a project due very soon--I was never convinced that the future Rufus comes from would be one I would want to live in. And I couldn't help wondering also if Mike Judge didn't address the movie and its sequel twice: first in Beavis and Butthead, making the dimwitted teenagers petty and vicious, and then again in Idiocracy, making a future populated with dimwits a nightmare rather than a fantasy.

White Elephant Blog-a-thon:
The Ongoing Cinematic Education of Steven Carlson on Bio-Dome.
Flickhead on Teen Witch.
Zoom In Online on Tale of the Bunny Picnic.
Eddie's Blog-a-Thon Board on Purple Rain.
Ben @ Lucis Screening on Nude for Satan.
Andrew @ Lucid Screening on Troll 2.
Lazy Eye Theatre on Forbidden Games.
Filmsquish on Air Bud: World Pup.
As Cool As a Fruitstand on Picnic.
goatdogblog on Making the Grade.
Talk to Me Harry Winston on Riki-Oh: the Story of Ricky.
The Exploding Kintetoscope on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Next Generation.
Ben @ Lucid Screening on The End.
Case @ Lucid Screening on Minoes.
Rufus @ Lucid Screening on Dark Harvest 2: The Maize.
Additional links to be added as I find them....

And two mp3s, since this is an mp3blog:
Primus -- Tommy the Cat
Primus -- Bob
"Tommy the Cat" is actually used in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, not the original, but the soundtrack to the original doesn't impress me at all and the soundtrack to the sequel outdoes it by having one song worth the time spent listening to it.

Primus are a divisive band; most people I've met either love them or hate them. For my part, I thought Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Pork Soda were good and the rest were not.

Les Claypool has a unique approach to playing bass, but what surprises me most about this track is Tom Waits as Tommy the Cat. The song is originally from Sailing the Seas of Cheese and tells an amusing story; "Bob" is from Pork Soda and is a sober track about a friend's suicide, aptly hinting at the darkness and obsession that surround the event but avoiding emo territory in its delivery.
[Sailing the Seas of Cheese]
[Pork Soda]

And, on the subject of comedies centering on research, some wonderful detective work at Making Light, about what looks roughly similar to an Elmore Leonard story set in the publishing business.

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You're right: some of it does work on paper. When I read your line about Joan and Noah, I laughed. Otherwise, I don't recall the film much at all...but one line has echoed in my head for years: "the Mar-kwiss dee Shar-day." Funny lines better left unseen...

That one reminds me of Clueless's Hay-tee-ans, which (according to the director) was actually how Alicia Silverstone actually pronounced it.

So are you responsible for my selection of Forbidden Games?

Yes. That was one I'd see in video stores all the time, but a lot of my cinema-loving friends hadn't seen it.

I did mention this as one of the films I was surprised at seeing in this blogathon, but now that you mention it, I, too, haven't seen it since high school, and then I saw it with a bunch of friends, so I'm guessing my reaction at seeing it again would be much the same.

Well, despite my review I did enjoy it for serious reasons.

The scene where Paulette loses her parents is still shocking in its matter of factness. Today, that scene would have been shot from seven different angles with swelling music and in slo-motion no less. How little we've come in over 50 years.

You're right about that, Piper. There's something to be said for understatement.

goatdog, I've found myself hesitant to revisit some films I'd liked for fear they wouldn't stand up. I guess in some cases I'd rather have the memory than the experience.

I've tried to submit a few comments to Lucid Screening but I think I'm doing something wrong. If I could comment there, I think I'd say that Andrew has actually interested me in his film, and that I'm grateful for the White Elephant blogathon and think it produced some interesting and amusing writeups.

Hi Tuwa! I'm the person who submitted Bill & Ted. I have a lot of fondness for that movie, probably due to the fact its been over ten years since I've seen it. Now that I think of it, its kind of a dumb version of a Charlie Kaufman movie before Charlie Kaufman. I need to watch it again soon - I think there are some theoretical issues concerning history in the film that deserve to be looked it....

P.S. You totally neglected to mention that B & T's Execllent Adventure features Keanu Reeves finest performance to date!

Andrew, you're right; the treatment of history in the film could use some discussion. I'm sure you'd do a good job at it too.

I'd thought of writing that about Reeves' performance, but then I wondered if I was misremembering the others but didn't have the inclination or fortitude to make sure. ^_^

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