Director: Christopher Landon
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Phi Vu, Israel Broussard
One of the many things that Christopher Landon did right with 2017’s super-fun surprise Happy Death Day was keep it (relatively) simple. A girl, Tree (Jessica Rothe), finds herself in a time loop after being stalked and killed by a masked slasher. To break the loop she had to discover the identity of her murderer and thwart their success. Along the way she learns and grows and also falls for all-round nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard). The mechanism behind the phenomena was left out of the equation. Who needs a MacGuffin anyway?
Turns out those with ambitions for a trilogy do. Yes, Happy Death Day 2U seems over-eager to ape not just Groundhog Day but Back To The Future. Fittingly, it’s Back To The Future Part II (the best Back To The Future*) that gets squarely referenced here, as Tree’s second adventure through time dovetails into the first and toys with the notion of parallel realities.
Having survived Monday the 18th, we now move on to Tuesday the 19th. Landon’s follow-up opens with an awkward change in focus. This time its Carter’s roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) that we’re following; a student of quantum physics who happens to get murdered by a masked figure disguised as that same baby-faced mascot. The day resets. The killer’s identity this time gets revealed disarmingly fast, and opens up a head-scratching can of worms. But there’s precious little time for that as Happy Death Day 2U bolts along; this is all in service of a sketchily explained set of circumstances to send Tree barreling back in time to Monday the 18th; a day she has to survive all over again.
Except there’s a twist; not only is she stuck in another looping day that is reset by her own death, she’s also crossed into a parallel dimension where she’s able to go to lunch with her parents. Both of them.
The prior death of Tree’s mother in film one was a simple touch of character back story that informed her maturity. Here this bit of family history is drawn squarely into focus and folds back into the continuing theme of second chances. Last go around we saw Tree learn from her mistakes and become a better person. This time she’s placed in a more intriguing dilemma. She has, in effect, stolen someone else’s life (umm, her own). The temptation to keep it is understandable. But don’t our past experiences make us who we are?
This is all played with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but Landon’s films aren’t about nuance; they’re about fun. His sequel is several notches sillier than the first Happy Death Day. The humour is more juvenile and cheesy stereotypes all the cheesier. See Dean Roger Bronson (Steve Zissis) as exhibit A; the quintessential “stupid Dean” that Homer Simpson might shake his fist at. 2U‘s jokes are a lot more obvious, probably because there’s so little space in which to crowbar them in.
This is an absurdly chaotic film, one that bursts at the seams with plot tangents (some of which feature gaping holes). Here you’ll find Tree torn between multiple masked serial killers, doppelgängers, experimental science projects… the works. Central to all of this is a rickety ol’ MacGuffin; the cumbersome presence of which underscores the preferable simplicity of not explaining the mechanics of your central conceit.
Thank the heavens, then, for Jessica Rothe. Phi Vu is fine as Ryan, but its a considerable relief when the film pivots back onto Rothe’s more capable and charismatic shoulders. As previously, she powers this adventure along, imbuing the picture with warmth, wit and – when called for – emotion. The entire experience is heightened whenever she is in command of the story. Advancement of the plot sometimes depends on Tree resetting the day deliberately, leading to a decidedly darker montage than the one in the first movie, as Tree finds evermore elaborate ways of offing herself. That these attempts are to be taken in good humour is clear (and the sequence culminates in Deadpool-worthy slow motion glee). Still, it could be read as irresponsible or in poor taste.
Rothe does have to give up screen time, however, as the circle of ‘Scoobies’ widens to include Ryan and fellow sciency-types Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Andrea (Sarah Yarkin). By the end of the picture they’re all on equal footing, striding down a hall together as one. The parallel universe conceit does allow further fan service, however, as everybody from the first movie gets to shine a little more, whether they survived that picture or not.
In spite of concerted effort to conjure the same magic, Landon’s battle is harder won this time around. For one thing, Happy Death Day landed with zero expectation behind it. 2U arrives with plenty. But for another, this is simply a far messier movie. Its convoluted. It frequently seems dumber than it thinks it is. And it tries (too?) hard to expand its universe with half-baked explanations and extra levels of complexity. Come the end, the opening 20 minutes still feel completely at odds with the ensuing 80. And then there’s the barmy post-credits sequence, which makes a third movie seem more like a threat than a thrill.
Still, there’s such an abundance of energy here that Happy Death Day 2U gets away with murder. This is not a superior sequel. It’s a scatty, structurally spurious one. Objectively, it’s kind of a mess. But damn, it’s also fun, and damn, Rothe is still so good.
Just make sure you do your homework and rewatch the Happy Death Day as close as you can to buckling up for this one. Newcomers or those with a fuzzy memory will be hopelessly, hopelessly lost.
*other opinions are available.