Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)

Bill & Ted Face the Music finds our lovable slacker buds, William S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves), still at the great work that Rufus (the late George Carlin) foretold for them: the song that would unite the world. They’re also middle aged, with daughters of their own, named for the other: Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is dark-haired, shy, and androgynous like Ted, while Theadora Preston (Samara Weaving) is blonde, confident, and hyperactive like Bill. The film opens on the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch), who was once our hapless duo’s babysitter, then was Ted’s step-mother, then Bill’s step-mother, and is now marrying Ted’s younger brother Deacon (Beck Bennett, taking over for Frazier Bain). At the reception, Bill and Ted plan to perform the first three movements of their latest composition, entitled “That Which Binds Us Through Time: The Chemical, Physical, and Biological Nature of Love and the Exploration of the Meaning of Meaning — Part 1,” and it starts with throat-singing and theremin, so I’m on board, but it’s not a crowd pleaser. At the suggestion of their wives, the princesses (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays), Bill and Ted attend couple’s therapy with their respective spouse, as a quartet. 

Meanwhile in the future, time and space are falling apart. Rufus’s daughter Kelly (Kristen Schaal) and widow The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) have different interpretations of the prophesied Wyld Stallyns song, with the latter believing in her father’s vision of universal unity through the power of music, and her mother hoping to put things back on track by reluctantly killing the Stallyns. To that end, she sends a time-traveling murderbot (Anthony Carrigan) to hunt them down across space and time. Learning about the dire situation, Bill and Ted steal their old phone booth time machine and move progressively forward in time along their own lifelines in an attempt to acquire the song from their future selves. Meanwhile, Billie and Thea travel through time to acquire various historical musicians (and Kid Cudi) in preparation for the performance. 

The sad thing about Face the Music is that, all too often, Bill and Ted are the least interesting things in it. This movie made me feel young, and then it made me feel old, and then it made me feel young again, but not in a way I was happy about. There’s just a little too much happening here, in a sequel to a movie that knew just how many juggling pins it could keep in the air at one time, and there are too many narrative threads. Offscreen, the princesses have been invited by future versions of themselves to see all of space and time and see if there’s any way they can actually be happy in their marriages to the men of the title (not to sound too much like the boys, but, like, that plot is majorly a downer). Meanwhile, the daughters are having their adventure, which is a mixed bag; Weaving and Lundy-Paine are both great here but are sometimes forced into delivering dialogue that hits the ear with neither subtlety or comedy. They have a kind of abridged version of Excellent Adventure as they collect Mozart, Hendrix, and Louis Armstrong (Daniel Dorr, DazMann Still, and Jeremiah Craft) and others, to form a supergroup rather than for a history project, but each encounter feels more expository than fun. They encounter one instance of resistance in their plot and overcome it almost immediately, then have nothing but easy success from there on out, which doesn’t make for a compelling watch. Conversely, each future version of the adult Bill and Ted is drunker and less helpful than the last, and these encounters go on for too long (especially in 2025), making the whole thing feel more like a labor than a good time. Then, as if that weren’t enough, we get a slight rehash of Bogus Journey with a trip to Hell, where the guys, their daughters, several time-displaced musicians, and Ted’s dad once again meet up with Death (William Sadler) to get back to the world of the living in time to perform the song and prevent the end of existence as we know it–because, if there’s one thing you have to remember, it’s this: the clock in San Dimas is always running. 

I didn’t even get into the plot that’s running concurrently in the future in which The Great Leader keeps getting summoned into the same amphitheater to look at the hologram of space and time (represented as the earth as a turntable, with a record deck at the equator like Saturn’s rings) to fret, which seems to happen nearly half a dozen times. In an overstuffed movie, it’s crammed in there too for some reason but there seems to be a disconcerting lack of a narrative purpose for us to keep going back there. Obviously one would want to get their money’s worth when hiring Holland Taylor, but from a story standpoint, there’s just no reason to keep doing this; a ninety-three minute movie shouldn’t have 125 minutes of plot crowding it up like the suitcase of a Looney Tunes character, as it leaves no breathing room and creates the situation mentioned earlier, in which character dialogue is rushed and overly expositional.  

I loved Bill & Ted in my youth, and no one wanted this movie to be better than I did. There are a few solid jokes here, but even some of the best are in service of generating a nostalgic feeling, which isn’t the wrong way to go with this particular franchise, but could have been scaled back by about 35% and had both more room to breathe and been just as effective. Lundy-Paine and Weaving are doing a lot of heavy lifting, and they’re up to most of it, but there are lines that they’re asked to sell that are simply impossible to pull off, and while Reeves has continued to carve out a niche for himself with John Wick and one-off minor roles in things like Neon Demon, Alex Winter has remained largely out of the public eye, mostly making documentaries. It’s great to see him here; he seems to be having the most fun of anyone, and it’s infectious, even when the film drags. It’s a less than delightful end(?) to a franchise that had a better ending in Bogus Journey.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Unicorn (2019)

In some ways, I feel as if I were a little spoiled by the efficiency of this year’s quirky Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers, in which two friends run a business that helps strangers break up with their romantic partners in exchange for cash. That film starts with the titular business already in operation so that it can immediately launch into the gags set up by its ludicrous premise, wasting no time on justifying the scenario with a first-act backstory. I was nostalgic for that efficiency during The Unicorn, which spends almost a third of its runtime struggling to set up a very simple comedic premise: a young California couple attempts to save their flailing relationship by orchestrating a late-night threesome. Following the Breaker Upperers model, The Unicorn would already start with the couple on the hunt for the perfect partner to open them up sexually & romantically, so that it could pack in more blunderous shenanigans as they desperately attempt to actualize their fantasy. The backstory of how they arrived at the delusion that a threesome is a cure-all for their trust & communication issues could easily fit in a flashback or a single-scene set-up. At the very least, we don’t need a half-hour of setup before we launch into a premise already concisely teased in the title.

Still, even if it’s not the most efficient or structurally creative comedy around, The Unicorn is still about as funny & charming as you’d expect from a One Crazy Night comedy featuring a bunch of UCB & SNL regulars in bit roles, which I mean as a compliment. LA comedy scenesters Lauren Lapkus & Nick Rutherford star as the threesome-seeking couple, a pair of neurotic indoor kids who pretend to be far more social & adventurous than what they’re truly comfortable with. Familiar faces like Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and (beloved to me because of the trash gem Truth or Dare?) Lucy Hale pop up like Whack-a-Moles as the couple disastrously attempts to sleep their way cross Palm Springs as a means of saving their stalled relationship. Fueled by an ungodly quantity of hard liquor, these episodic challenges to the boundaries of their sexual comfort do drudge up some genuinely moving relationship-dynamics drama – à la similar LA indie comedies like Band Aid, Duck Butter, and The Overnight. Mostly, though, they’re an excuse for talented comedic performers to riff in uncomfortable sexual scenarios – creating audience tension for the jokesters to release. Luckily, the cast is very funny and easily carries what could potentially be a thin premise for a feature film – especially considering how well behaved the movie is structurally.

Shot, directed, and sometimes soundtracked by the Schwartzman/Rooney clan, you can occasionally feel artsy, Wes Andersonian aesthetics coloring this low-key indie sex comedy, but they mostly color between the lines. Beside the careful, old-fashioned build before launching into the premise, the film also falls into a common screenwriting trap that always drives me mad in conventional comedies. After the inevitable Third Act Fight between Lapkus & Rutherford, both participants are prompted to say “I’m sorry” in reconciliation, even though the girlfriend has clearly done nothing wrong and only the dude needs to apologize. It a frustratingly common trope, especially considering the other ways the film is conscious of challenging traditional comedic gender dynamics. The sincere bisexual experimentation, negotiation of terms before play, and constant checking in for consent are all refreshing to see sneak into a vanilla sex comedy this structurally conventional, so it’s a little disappointing to see it bookended by such familiar automatic-screenwriting-template decisions. I don’t want to sound like too much of a grump here, though. The movie is very funny, surprisingly sweet, and admirably open-minded for a comedy this conventional. If nothing else, the line “I’m glad we stopped before you did something you didn’t want to do” is remarkable considering the format in a way I doubt I’ll encounter again any time soon. Any complaints I have about its execution are likely just a side effect of finding something more to say about this simple, familiar pleasure other than “It’s funny.”

-Brandon Ledet

Greener Grass (2019)

Did you find yourself disappointed that Too Many Cooks wasn’t an hour longer? Have you ever started an online petition to greenlight a gender-flipped remake of Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie? Ever have a nightmare that David Lynch rebooted Stepford Wives as an Adult Swim sitcom? The precise target audience for Greener Grass is such an unlikely combination of interests & tolerances that it’s an unholy miracle the movie was ever made in the first place, much less screened at competitive film festivals like Sundance & The Overlook. It’s not enough that its audience has to be thirsty for a femme, Lynchian subversion of Adult Swim-flavored anti-comedy; they have to sustain that thirst for 100 unrelenting minutes as they’re flooded with enough illogical chaos & menacing irreverence to last 100 lifetimes. It’s an exhausting experience no matter who you are, but there are apparently enough weirdos out there who find this peculiar brand of comedic antagonism pleasurable enough to fight through the delirium. I’m afraid I’m one of them.

At its core, Greener Grass is a comedy of manners. First-time directors Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Leubbe costar as suburban housewives in the same cookie-cutter, fly-over America we’re used to seeing in films like Blue Velvet & Edward Scissorhands. The film is so blatant in its adoption of the Sinister Evil Lurking Under Suburbia’s Manicured Surface trope that it practically functions as a parody of the genre. There’s a framework for a serial killer plot in which a crazed grocery bagger stalks local women and usurps their lives & homes, but it’s mostly treated as an afterthought, some light background decoration. Instead, the film generates most of its horror by mocking middle class suburbanites as subhuman monstrosities. Sharing a communal vanity that drives every single adult to get braces, they make out in wet, sexless slurps that torment the audience in unholy foley work. Proud of the size & cleanliness of their in-ground swimming pools to the point of mania, they bottle the pool water for drinking on the go. Traveling around from beige McMansion to beige McMansion in electric golf carts, they callously trade husbands & children as bargaining chips in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. Each awkward social interaction is scored with creepy music cues as the humiliation from not keeping up with the Jones drives them each dangerously mad. It’s a total horror show, in that it’s totally banal.

DeBoer & Leubbe are joined by fellow LA comedy scenesters like Mary Holland, D’arcy Carden, Beck Bennet, and Janizca Bravo as they mercilessly mock the status-obsessed suburban monsters of Everywhere, America. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact target audience for this femme, improv-heavy anti-humor, outside the comedy nerds who turn up for UCB shows in NYC & LA. It was certainly surprising to see the film appear on the schedule for the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, which tends to cater to more immediately familiar horror tones than what the grocery-bagger killer side-plot has to offer here. I will admit it, though: the film is horrifying. Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.

-Brandon Ledet

Brigsby Bear (2017)

There was a time before DVRs, streaming, and even VCRs when watching television was a more communal activity. The idea of a “water cooler show” that everyone discusses in the days after it airs is still alive & well, but in the early days of broadcast viewing there was a more distinct cultural phenomenon of everyone watching the same show at once. When I was a kid my two religious appointment-viewing shows were The Simpsons & Saturday Night Live, two cultural behemoths that shaped my comedic brain while simultaneously doing the same for snarky kids & juvenile adults everywhere who I virtually shared a television set with, but never met. Brigsby Bear taps into that exact communal phenomenon and turns it into a horror show. What if there weren’t millions of other people watching The Simpsons at the exact same time as me? What if, in fact, I was the entirety of the show’s intended audience? What if instead of it being a show meant to entertain a massive amount of people it was instead produced as propaganda to warp my (and only my) developing mind? In Brigsby Bear, the answers to these questions are darkly funny & informed by awkward, whimsical quirk, but also lead to some fairly earnest, heartbreaking discoveries about abuse, therapy, community, and art.

SNL’s Kyle Mooney stars as the victim of such an elaborate betrayal, a thirty-something man-child who was raised as the sole superfan of the fictional television show The Brigsby Bear Adventures. The show, which chronicles the space-traveling adventures of its titular bear, was meant to raise him from when he was a small child until his current state as an emotionally stunted adult. As a result, it has the appearance of Teletubbies or Barney style kids’ television with the complex lore of a sci-fi series that has lasted hundreds of episodes over the course of decades. Along with enforcing propaganda about “only trusting your family unit” and how “curiosity is an unnatural emotion,” the show also teaches him increasingly complex math problems & provides a window of mental escape within his horrifically insular surroundings. Beginning where Room winds up in its third act, Mooney’s over-sheltered protagonist ends his lifelong confinement to a small space where television is his only contact with the outside world to explore a new world where “everything is really very big.” The problem is that in order to be integrated into a larger, more conventional society, he must leave behind his memorabilia altar to the almighty Brigsby and adjust to a new life where a show that only he’s ever seen is no longer being produced on a weekly basis; he’ll never know how The Brigsby Bear Adventures ends. His only choice, then, is to complete Brigsby’s character arc himself in a final, self-produced movie that will satisfactorily conclude the only story he (and only he) has ever cared about once & for all.

If Brigsby Bear were made in the snarkier days of the Gen-X 90s, it would be unbearably sarcastic & mean. Although it’s a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars an animatronic bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, it’s instead remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. Along with Mooney (who co-wrote the screenplay), Brigsby Bear features several sketch comedy performers (Matt Walsh, Andy Samberg, Beck Bennett) who somehow sidestep snark to hold their own dramatically with more traditionally earnest players like Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, and Mark Hammill. Only Tim Heidecker is allowed to fully ham it up in his single scene cameo as an objectively shitty action star. Everyone else plays the material straight, allowing the absurdity of the scenario to speak for itself. Mooney anchors the film by adjusting the socially awkward, overgrown teens he usually plays in sketches to convey a hurt, scared man-child who is unsure how to adjust to the expanse of the modern world, so he buries himself in his work, recalling outsider art projects like Marwencol or Henry Darger’s Realms of the Unreal. By crudely learning the art of filmmaking so he can complete the fictional saga of a space alien bear wizard, he finds his own place in society, making friends & learning to cope with an unbelievably tough adjustment along the way. It’s just as touching as it is strange.

I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that Brigsby Bear manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself. Regardless of how it was created to manipulate a single viewer/victim, its existence could only do the world good. Like an inverse of the haunted VHS tapes of The Ring, everyone who watches The Brigsby Bear Adventures is emotionally brought to life and I sorely wish I could count myself among them.

-Brandon Ledet