How to Be Dumb

All hail the San Dimas, California, duo of William S. Preston, Esq., and Ted "Theodore" Logan, benignly disaffected teens with lazy minds, heavy-metal dreams, and their own special language. Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) first wandered into theaters in 1988, when Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a sleeper hit that followed the pair as they traveled through time, touched off a bonfire of interest in all variants of surf, metal-head, and mall-teen subcultures.

Without Bill and Ted, there might have been no Wayne's World, and McDonald's certainly would have deliberated years longer before initiating its hip-to-the-minute advertising campaign, the one where the conspicuously Bill-and-Ted-like dude paces back and forth across the exquisitely manicured lawn of an imposing mansion, calling to the residents with Bill-and-Ted-like phrases such as "most bodacious" and "totally awesome." He finds, to his dismay, that the lord and lady of the manse have gone to McDonald's. What a surprise.

The original Bill and Ted, to their credit, have better things to do than to whore themselves for corporate America. They're still hanging out in San Dimas, listening to the stereo, practicing air guitar, and dreaming of the day when their own band - Wyld Stallyns - will break into the big time. Oh, yeah, and they're also starring in a second feature film, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, in which they have to save the world.

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Deep in the future, the nefarious Nomolos De Nomolos (Joss Ackland, looking more and more like St. Thomas Aquinas) hatches a dastardly plan to dispatch evil robot doubles back to the Twentieth Century, murder the original Bill and Ted, and change history forever. To carry out his evil scheme, Nomolos has designed Terminator-like cyborgs that are ultra-powerful, indestructible, and every bit as goofy as the original Bill and Ted, and he's so confident of the success of his plot that he's already printed copies of a textbook entitled Nomolos De Nomolos: The Greatest Man in History.

Back in present-day San Dimas, Bill and Ted have just proposed marriage to the lovely princesses they filched from Medieval England. But domestic bliss is threatened when Nomolos's robots, assuming the voices of the two girls, dupe our heroes into believing that they have had a sudden change of heart. "We are leaving the band," they sneer over the phone. "We think you guys are losers and we do not want to see you any more. We have gone out to the desert to be alone."

Stunned, Bill and Ted drown their sorrow in a totally excellent episode of Star Trek (it's the "Arena" episode, the one where Captain Kirk must battle to the death with a grunting lizard-monster), and when the evil robots show up, professing to help, the Wyld Stallyns jump at the chance to get their girls back. Before Bill and Ted know what's happening, they're taken to Vasquez Rocks Park in Saugus, California - the same geologic formation from the Star Trek episode - and dispatched. (Or, as the heroes explain to their malignant doubles, "You totally killed us, you evil metal dickweeds.") The Grim Reaper (William Sadler) even drops by to claim their souls.

But Bill and Ted won't be undone, not even by their own death, and they escape the Reaper and begin their bogus journey, which weaves through being, nothingness, heaven, and hell. (In fact, the original title, Bill and Ted Go To Hell, was altered when producers learned that major networks would not allow advertisements with "Hell" in them before 11:00 p.m.)

Director Peter Hewitt, making his feature debut, has done some very impressive visual work here, equal parts happy-go-lucky lifts from other films (scenes reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's cavernous nightmare-scapes and Tim Burton's cartoon worlds, as well as a Pearly Gates straight out of Michael Powell's Stairway to Heaven) and original invention. Designed with the most sophisticated (and most bodacious) computer graphics, the stunning Bogus Journey sets and state-of-the-art robot effects are a far cry from the occasionally cheesy historical re-creations of the first film.

And the jokes are stronger than ever. Arriving in hell, Bill laments its appearance: "We were totally lied to by our album covers, man." Asked to provide the meaning of life at the Gates of Heaven (manned by bluesman/ethnomusicologist Taj Mahal), Bill and Ted recite the lyrics to Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." Some of the best material is delivered by Sadler, who plays Death as a cross between Bergman's Seventh Seal Reaper and Stan Laurel.

Buoyed by the comic riches of the hereafter, co-writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon have wisely trimmed away some of the first film's fat. There's a scant minimum of Oedipal tension between Bill and Missy (Amy Stock-Poynton), the very young, quite attractive stepmother. And George Carlin, whose work as future mentor Rufus was at best characterized by dangerous underacting, nets only a cameo. Despite a late scriptwriting lapse that admits a pair of genius Martian scientists, and a breakneck showdown at the San Dimas Battle of the Bands that isn't nearly as funny as the low-energy playfulness of the early going, Bill and Ted maintain their most atypical comic balance throughout.

And in the end, how can you speak badly of a film where Death is defeated with the old "your shoes are untied" trick, or one that imagines a celestial realm where Albert Einstein spends his time playing charades? "Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. No? Er, Smokey and the Bandit 3...Smokey Is The Bandit," muses the father of relativity. Perhaps Matheson and Solomon, aware of the complexity of their robot-double plot, are slyly alluding to the third of the popular Jackie Gleason-Burt Reynolds pairings, in which Gleason played two parts before the film's clone-visuals were judged too confusing and reshot with Jerry Reed assuming one of the roles. Perhaps not. Who cares. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "Party on, dudes!

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