Sunday, May 17, 2015

Enchantéd, Pt. VIII: Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin

VIII. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
(PG, Orion Pictures)


By the year 2688, Earth's civilization will have finally reached Utopia. Clean air, clean water, and even clean dirt. Bowling averages will reach an all-time high while mini-golf scores plummet, but everyone will agree that our planet owns the monopoly on waterslides. Ironically, the teller of such fortunes is George Carlin as Rufus, a native of this future paradise who doesn't pause to explain why bowling and golf are not officially sports. For as we all know, you have to rent the shoes from the lanes and golf is as boring as watching flies f…

…forget it. The point is that this New World Order would not exist had the two philosophers from San Dimas, CA who founded it flunked their history exam in a most heinous development.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is the sole blockbuster movie in Diane Franklin's pocket (for those of you who didn't recognize her the first time, myself included, she's the blue belle on the left of the late Mr. Carlin), but we've reached the turning point where our peerless 1980s innamorata suddenly becomes much less visible than ever before. Franklin has less than 10 minutes of screen time here, a dispiriting realization compared to the twin peaks of Better Off Dead and TerrorVision. Also, we've come full circle as her function in Bill & Ted is basically a more sophisticated version of the "babe" persona introduced in The Last American Virgin.

At least in Second Time Lucky (which is as close to a Bill & Ted movie tailored for Diane as you'll ever see) and Better Off Dead, her glorified love interests were given ample breathing room as characters. This is strictly square one.

Common knowledge tells us that Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was completed in 1987, when then-Ms. Franklin was still a working actress. The film was originally produced for Dino De Laurentiis, who gave the world Amityville II: The Possession, but his DEG distribution label was in the red. In stepped Orion Pictures and Nelson Entertainment, formerly Embassy Pictures, to give the film a proper push theatrically. After a few post-production tweaks, mainly to change the setting from 1987 to 1988 (there was also an alternate "prom" ending which got dumped), it opened in February of 1989 and spawned a most excellent franchise which is currently being groomed for a third entry.

Another well-known fact: 1991's Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey replaced both Diane Franklin (Princess Joanna) and co-star Kimberley LaBelle/Kates (Princess Elizabeth) with ‘90s starlet Sarah Trigger, who was born with her English accent, and Annette Azcuy.

And yet, after Diane Franklin spent over a decade transitioning to domestic life, her own daughter Olivia DeLaurentis made a short film in 2011 called Humanized in which she subconsciously named her character Alexis Winters. Betcha didn't know that!

So while The Last American Virgin and Better Off Dead vie eternally for cult supremacy in Diane's canon (seriously, where's the love for Summer Girl and/or TerrorVision?), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure became a legit phenomenon, spun-off into cartoon series, breakfast cereals, video games, and action figures. Better that than having an abortion clinic board game or a plush version of Ricky Smith.

Although if it were Charles De Mar ("This is pure snow!" he'd say after you pull his string), I'd sincerely consider it.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure introduces its characters in way that suggests a sketch comic parody of Back to the Future starring the Spicoli Brothers. We get the over-juiced speaker catching fire, the "we're late for school" epiphany and their shaming by the school's authority figures. Unlike Marty McFly, though, they haven't the ability to get near a tune nor the wherewithal to attract girlfriends. Calling themselves Wyld Stallyns, Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) don't even share the same train of thought, pondering a chicken-and-egg debate over whether their fame rests on Eddie Van Halen's tutelage or a bitchin' music video, skirting the obvious fact that they should actually learn some basic chords so that they approach even Link Wray-level proficiency.

Bill & Ted are just as clueless scholastically as they are musically; to them, Joan of Arc is "Noah's wife" and [Julius] Caesar is "a salad-dressing dude." The fate of the world is in doubt due to their consistent F marks in history class, for Ted's police captain father (Hal Landon Jr.) is one step away from sending his son off to a military academy (apparently in "Alaska," according to the ditzy Ted). Rufus is beamed into the present to act as emissary and salvation, materializing from out of the sky via a time-traveling phone booth and into the parking lot of the local Circle K.

Thanks to a freak accident during a test run of the device, it also rains Napoleon Bonaparte (Terry Camilleri), fresh from Austria 1805. Having returned at Ted's home, the duo place the discombobulated general under the care of Ted's older brother Deacon (Frazier Bain) as they embark on their manifest destiny: to travel back to the many time periods their history professor Mr. Ryan (Bernie Casey of Cleopatra Jones and Revenge of the Nerds) has outlined on their final and collect various iconic figures to give their own testimonials.

Looking back at the movie in context of Diane Franklin's decade-spanning exposure, its clear how far we've come from The Last American Virgin to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Whereas the trio of horny teens in Boaz Davidson's film required some major liberties to accept as tight-knit friends given their conflicting personalities, Bill & Ted are truly dudes of a feather, the ensuing comedy amiable in the best possible way. There is a pleasing absence of malice to the way the duo interact with the world, and even the introduction of an Oedipal complex in the lissome form of Bill's trophy stepmother Missy (Amy Stock-Poynton, graced with a humorous pout) is hardly catastrophic. Whereas the chauvinistic triad of that 1982 film would no doubt cry "Slut!" upon sight of Missy's cleavage, the worst that happens here is Ted's innocent razzing of his confused best friend ("Remember when I asked her to the prom?" "Shut up, Ted!!!").

As based on characters developed for the improvisational comedy stage, writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon (see if you can guess which scene they cameo in) get a lot of mileage out of the duo's vibrant lingo, one which combines the refined with the lowbrow. Bill refers to his "distinguished colleague" Ted in failing to bluff his way into convincing Mr. Ryan to go easy on them. Also there's Ted's priceless reaction upon seeing their future doppelgangers sing the praises of Rufus: "Bill...Strange things are afoot at the Circle K." The boys mangle the pronunciation of Socrates ("So-Crates"), tempt another ancient figure with a Twinkie and demonstrate their fullest knowledge of George Washington by referring to the Hall of Presidents exhibit at Disney World. And they call each other "Fag!" after a perfectly rational bro hug, which is hardly cause for alarm since they giddily resume japing.

These idiot savants wouldn't be half as charming, however, were it not for the serendipitous casting/chemistry of Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves. Winter, previously a bit player in Death Wish 3 and The Lost Boys (and currently a documentary director whom I previously spotlighted), resembles a curly-haired, midriff-baring goof on Emilio Estevez. More self-assured than the shaggy Ted, a cigar-chomping Bill tries to school his dopey bud on the art of the "poker face" during a high-stakes game with Billy the Kid (Dan Shor of Wise Blood and Tron), only to crack hilariously when he finds three aces in his hand. And Reeves, in his star-making role following River's Edge and the 1986 Babes in Toyland, nails down the elastic body language and dazed reaction shots to turn his comparatively more childish personality into a comical treasure.

Ted is the designated "ladies' man" of the team, demonstrated by their arrival in medieval London where they become smitten with Princesses Elizabeth (Kimberley Kates, who was in a DTV murder mystery called Dangerous Love with LAV's Lawrence Monoson) and Joanna (Diane!!!). Able to recite classic rock lyrics at will for the sake of philosophizing (and to happily confuse the torture device known as the iron maiden with the Iron Maiden), Ted charms these predetermined brides with this impromptu stanza:

"Oh, you beautiful babes from England,
For whom we have traveled through time...
Will you go to the prom with us in San Dimas?
We will have a most triumphant time!"

But it ends disastrously upon the arrival of their daddy, the royal ugly Duke (John Karlsen), and the duo are saved from the guillotine by Billy the Kid and Socrates (Tony Steedman). With no time left to lose ("The clock in San Dimas," Rufus told them, "is always running"), Bill & Ted continue forward by snatching up the likes of Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis of The Beastmaster and Jack's Back), Joan of Arc (pop star Jane Wiedlin from The Go-Go's, also the dead messenger girl from Clue), Genghis Khan (Al Leong, the oriental heavy in Die Hard and Lethal Weapon), and Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron, previously seen in Eating Raoul and Disorderlies).

Meanwhile, back in present-day San Dimas, the movie's trump card character, Napoleon, gets his literal day in the sun. Terry Camilleri, like much of the cast a relative unknown, might be familiar to the handful who fondly recall famed Aussie director Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris from 1974 (he later had a cameo in Weir's The Truman Show). It's a shame he didn't land a fruitful career as a physical comic after this. Adapting the Revolutionary emperor's stoic tyranny to the modern world, Camilleri's perpetually wide-eyed Napoleon cheats at bowling, conquers the public pool Waterloo ("Mon dieu!") and wields a dessert spoon like a bayonet for the last precious drop of melted "Ziggy Pig" ice cream sundae.

Matheson and Solomon play a lot more loose with the time-space continuum than seen in previous pop fables like Time After Time or Back to the Future. Random occurrences crop up so frequently during the finale, mainly to help Bill & Ted break out their jailed charges after they all get arrested for various infractions at the mall, that it becomes a battery of satirical jabs at the nature of contrived happy accidents. On a meta level, it's forgivable, although the verdict is still out on the significance of Rufus' own mission. Everything is pretty much guaranteed excellent in 2688, so where's the conflict?

Again, if you approach it on the clever satirical angle, as a lampoon of the culture of rock star worship be it Elvis Presley or Eric Clapton, you won't need to get hung up on dubious logic. There's a reason the "Three Most Important People in the World" are members of The Motels, The Tubes and The E Street Band (deep-voiced saxophonist Clarence "The Big Man" Clemons, R.I.P.).

Director Stephen Herek's debut movie, 1986's Critters, began with a sublime, FX-powered visual joke at the expense of an intergalactic assassin borrowing the visage of a video star who is clearly a wannabe Mick Jagger (Terrence Mann as Johnny Steele). After the first Bill & Ted, he found a modest career as a hired gun in his own right, helming a battery of Disney productions (The Mighty Ducks, Mr. Holland's Opus, the live-action 101 Dalmatians) as well as many middlebrow trinkets (Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, Rock Star, Life or Something Like It). Herek is the poor man's Chris Columbus, another once-promising craftsman who forsook imagination for assimilation.

That's a shame, because Herek's low-budget beginnings are further credits to the evolution of youth-friendly 1980s comedy away from the bastard sons of Porky's. And again, it's a huge relief when you look at Diane Franklin's resume from 1985 onward. Savage Steve Holland spun teen tropes on their heads like a dreidel in his Better Off Dead, although his gift for whirling dervish burlesque was eclipsed by Ted Nicolaou's TerrorVision and his outlandish parodies of nuclear families, materialistic scenesters and the cultural brain drain. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, by its own rights, makes pleasant time-capsule material in its varied riffs on 1980s pop flotsam right at the dawning of a new decade.

Where else are you going to see Billy the Kid and Socrates act like libidinous boys on the make, only to be foiled by Freud with a corn dog? ("Geek!") Or Joan of Arc copping Flashdance-style spastic gyrations to an audience of refugees from the Jane Fonda Workout Video? Or Ludwig van Beethoven (Clifford David) discovering the magic of the synthesizer and extolling the virtues of "Livin' on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi?

Or, finally, when all is most triumphant in the universe, Honest Abe emancipates an entire auditorium from their boredom with the Wyld Stallyns' two most timeless credos: "Be excellent to each other and...PARTY ON, DUDES!"

My only rebuttal: "Awesome! Totally awesome!"

The next review in this retrospective is another academically-themed teen movie from 1989, yet there's good news and bad news. The good news is that Diane Franklin will reunite with the creator of her single most charming role. The bad news is that she will have even less screen time than in Bill & Ted.