BILL & TED'S UNEXPECTED BLOCKBUSTER
TEEN-AGE AUDIENCES HAVE MADE THESE TWO DUDES A MOST TRIUMPHANT BOX-OFFICE PHENOMENON
A Movie about two high school dudes who travel through time in a telephone booth has become the most beloved eon-roving adventure since Marty McFly screeched into the 1950s in “Back to the Future.”
Bill & Ted. Denizens of a mythical dudedom where George Washington was born on Presidents' Day, Marco Polo is a water sport and the box office is most triumphant. Bill & Ted. The Great Ones. Heavy-metal prophets. Twinkie lovers. It's an excellent story.
As the heroes of “Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure,” these California high school students have become the affably dense idols of young moviegoers around the country.
Since the movie opened in February, with little advance publicity, teen-agers have made this sophomoric and warmhearted comic fantasy about two kids who enlist historical figures to help with their big history report a legitimate sleeper hit. In seven weeks it has taken in more than $33 million at the box office, outdistancing such prestigious fare as “Dangerous Liaisons.” In the process, teen-agers have introduced the comedy to younger viewers and their parents and re-established Hollywood's faith in the youth market, just when it looked like the industry was forsaking kids in favor of the “thirtysomething” baby-boomer audiences.
According to Bill & Ted's elaborate lexicon -- a kinder and gentler variation on the surfer slang and “valley talk” popularized in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Valley Girl” -- the movie's success is not merely excellent, but bodacious.
In the words of their fans, it's deserved.
“It's a great movie, so hilarious,” says Jeremy Buschine, a 14-year-old student at Miller Junior High in San Jose, before a recent showing at the Saratoga Six.
“The first time I saw it, I went back the next night. It's got everyone going around saying 'most triumphant'.”
He was about to see the movie for the third time with his brother Doug, 12, a seventh-grader at Miller.
“I wanted to see it because everyone in school keeps talking about it,” Doug says. Jeremy says “probably 75 percent” of the student body at Miller has seen the movie.
“Everybody knows it's kind of unrealistic, but everyone thinks it's really funny,” adds Scott Cumine, 13, a student at Hyde Junior High in Cupertino. “The kids go around saying 'excellent' and 'bogus' more than ever now.”
“I've yet to see one person come out of the theater who hasn't liked it,” says Mike McIntyre, general manager of the Saratoga Six. “This is the kind of movie kids come back to see not just two and three times, but five and six times.”
Produced for a modest $8.5 million, “Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure” has made big money despite opening to mostly negative reviews (the Mercury News' Glenn Lovell gave it 2 1/2 stars out of four and called it “low-budget all the way, but still solid family entertainment.”). Last week, after two months in circulation, it was still among the top five Hollywood money-makers.
Perhaps the most startling fact about “Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure” is that its heroes have conquered America while lacking the super powers of Rambo, the physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the dance steps of Michael Jackson. Indeed, Bill & Ted are innocuous rock 'n' rollers who avoid violence and profanity and never abuse alcohol, drugs, women or minorities -- just our musical sensibilities.
Thanks primarily to endearing and enthusiastic portrayals by actors Keanu Reeves (the sympathetic young actor from “River's Edge”) as the daydreamer Ted and Alex Winter as the scheming Bill, these hapless musicians have become the unlikeliest cult-movie stars since the members of Spinal Tap.
“You can tell they (Reeves and Winter) are good actors because they can act stupid and everything,” says Jeremy. “You know Bill and Ted are not playing with a full deck, but they're not bad kids.”
The result is that rare movie hybrid -- a picture with well-meaning characters that's hip as well as family-oriented.
“Well, yeah, it's dumb,” says Ed Solomon, the Saratoga High School graduate who wrote the script in 1984 with Chris Matheson. “It was written as a lark. But it's sweet. It's good-hearted.”
According to teachers and students, examples of the script's delightful hyperbolic language have become familiar bywords in local school corridors.
Dan Robuck, who teaches a “Film as Literature” course at Homestead High in Cupertino, polled his students on their favorite phrases and expressions from the movie.
In order of popularity:
--> “Most triumphant” -- Such as when Bill and Ted assess the need for a most triumphant video with which to launch their rock band.
--> “Most heinously” -- Such as when Bill tells Ted that they are going to fail their history report most heinously.
--> “Historical babes” -- How Bill and Ted refer to two princesses during the popular medieval segment of the movie.
--> “Royal ugly dudes” -- Their description of the enemy in the same sequence.
Robuck and his students also say the movie's fond farewell message -- “Be excellent to each other” -- has become the “force be with you” of our day.
“Those (words) are a lot better than some other words he could learn (at the movies),” says Lou Delorio, who was sitting with his son, Matthew, 8, a student at St. Martin's School, at a recent Meridian Quad showing.
Some teachers appreciate the film's positive attitude and its effect on students. Granted, its educational impact is limited; after all, it's doubtful that Napoleon would ever agree to go bowling. But at least the humor depends in part on students' familiarity with history and their ability to recognize such figures as Socrates (pronounced SEW-crates in the movie), Napoleon (“the short, dead dude”), Beethoven (“the Van Halen of his time”), Genghis Khan (“the very excellent barbarian”) and Billy the Kid (whom Bill & Ted refer to as “Mr. The-Kid”). Even when Bill uses the cover of Led Zeppelin's “House of the Holy” album to describe Ancient Greece -- “Lots of columns and steps, it was most tranquil” -- young viewers get a quick image of historical architecture as well as a laugh.
Phil Thornton, a history teacher at Mountain View Academy, took several students to a screening of “Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure” when it first opened.
“I immensely enjoyed it,” says Thornton, who has a Ph.D in history. “I laughed my head off because I felt the characterizations were just broad enough to be classic camp. They did not try to be historically accurate, but they (the film makers) paid enough attention to the details to be funny.
“On one level, it was simple slapstick, and I think that's the level most students appreciated. But, being a historian, I thought they did a nice tongue-in-cheek job of parodying certain traits of each of these historical characters they picked on. It's not at all serious. It's very fluffy. The idea of getting people out of the past to look at the present is a worthwhile gimmick.”
Most fans of the movie compare it favorably with other teen hits such as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Back to the Future” -- it plays like a combination of both.
Jendi Durbin, 17, a senior at Homestead, says it reminds her of “Strange Brew,” the comedy featuring Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as the McKenzie Brothers, the fictitious Canadian beer drinkers who popularized such words as “hoser.”
“Both movies introduced a whole new set of slang words for teen-agers,” she says. Durbin also liked the movie despite its lack of major women characters. “I'd rather have no women in it than have them playing stupid sex symbols,” she says.
Taylor Hively, 17, has seen it three times and warns against analyzing the story too closely. “It sort of cuts loose with everything,” he says. “It's a simple movie made for fun. You can go kick back and get an hour and a half of entertainment without having to think about a plot.”
Josh Lubitz, 17, saw the movie three times because “I thought it was worth the money.”
With the end of school in sight, teen-agers will soon be turning their attention to this year's crop of highly publicized summer movies -- “Batman,” “Ghostbusters II” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
But Bill & Ted are not likely to be forgotten.
Director Stephen Herek says the movie's commercial triumph has rejuvenated Hollywood interest in teen-age movies. “The studios thought the market had dried up,” he says.
Meanwhile, the students in Robuck's class were unanimous in saying they would rent (or buy) the film as soon as it comes out on video. But that could take some time: The movie's “legs” may keep it running at local theaters until the major summer releases begin opening late in May.
“The repeat business has been phenomenal,” says Peter Graves, vice president of marketing for Nelson Entertainment, which helped finance the film. “We had hoped for numbers like this, but nobody else in the industry expected it. The results have stunned everybody. One guy called us and said he'd seen it 17 times.”
His ultimate response to all the hoopla?
“Excellent!,” he exclaims, as if on cue.
Bill & Ted would be proud.