Deja vu: It’s that queasy sensation that you’ve seen this all before. In real life, it can be disquieting; in Hollywood it’s lucrative. The greater the sequel number, the greater the interest in revisiting the familiar. Still, this financial philosophy has never been taken to quite so literal an extreme as with Happy Death Day 2U, the go-for-broke and overeager to please sequel to one of 2017’s happiest surprises.
Its predecessor was in that rare breed of genre reinventions of Groundhog Day, the cinematic fable about a man doomed to relive the same day ad infinitum. Happy Death Day also might’ve been the most brazen about that Puxatony inspiration, proudly announcing its appropriation as a chipper slasher movie in which the genre’s prototypical victim, the conceited blonde, learns to be the better hero of her own story, and a helluva cagey survivor in any other. But unlike Groundhog, Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow, or any other time loop movie, Happy Death Day got a sequel. Which begs the question, what next?
As it turns out the next day of Tree Gelbman’s life is an awful lot like the last dozen or so she spent trapped inside a killer time loop. Wake up, rinse, dry, die, and repeat. And your enjoyment of that repetition will be based solely on how much slack you give Tree’s own hanging rope, as 2U strains credulity with a wink, a smile, and maybe a bikini-clad middle finger as it plummets from its giddier (and superior) heights.
Attempting to create the illusion of a radical change in formula, the film’s extended prologue is guided by Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), the harmless horndog from the first movie who lurked outside the room where Tree (Jessica Rothe) awoke with a hangover. It was a winning gag then, but as a warning to casting for future unintended franchises, beware that the serviceable bit players of this year might be next year’s sequel albatross. At a loss at carrying a movie, or even a fraction of one, Vu’s wooden delivery makes audiences desperate for Rothe’s all-encompassing charisma. Luckily, they won’t have to wait long.
As it turns out, Ryan is responsible for Tree’s time loop from the first movie. It was he, the rather unimpressive roommate of Tree’s eventual love interest Carter (Israel Broussard), who invented in a school lab a device that accidentally projects fatalistic time loops, and it’s also Ryan, the unlikely quantum physics genius, who winds up in his own slasher movie loop during Happy Death Day 2U’s opening 15 minutes. Thus he enlists Tree to help him undo his too-good work… and then accidently projects her to a parallel universe where things are different. This can range from the curious (Ruby Modine’s Lori is back and she’s no longer Tree’s stalker) to the cataclysmic (Carter is now dating Tree’s sorority sister Danielle!). It is all those things, plus the revelation that every day is again Tree’s birthday, and a masked killer seems to have it out for the blonde.
Happy Death Day 2U makes some amusing nods to other timey-wimey sequels, most specifically Back to the Future: Part II, but that might not do justice to the movie’s best and worst assets. The reality is that this movie knows it really doesn’t have a whole lot of story to tell, so returning director Christopher Landon—who also takes over screenwriting duties this time from the last movie’s Scott Lobdell—makes an ultimately prudent choice: throw everything in there, including the kitchen sink. Hell, it’s a wonder the film didn’t drown Tree in that sink during one of its many dark sight gags.
Dispensing with virtually all remaining horror movie pretenses, this sequel is a pitch black comedy marketed to the teenage set. While it’s gruesome enough to be a bit naughty, it is as happy-go-lucky in its PG-13 lightheartedness as the Valentine rom-com that will be playing next door in the multiplex. When Landon leans into the comedy, which is often, Happy Death Day 2U works kind of like an overlong SNL skit about a woman who keeps dying. Rothe has the same impeccable comedic timing from the first film, and her strained frustration with being trapped in the same exact scenario never ceases to get a laugh. As do her death-a-thons.
While the film winds up creating some half-baked pretense as to why Tree winds up with her own montage of suicides, which is unapologetically similar to a sequence in Groundhog Day, the enjoyment level is based solely on the visceral ways in which Tree ends her life. There is the is the matched and raised ante to Harold Ramis’ film where Tree takes a hairdryer into the bathtub but now with a snarky wideshot basking in its electrical glory, and then that time she skydives sans a parachute or clothes before later launching herself into a wood chipper.
Most of the sight gags land, sometimes with a deafening splat, but the film is so earnest in its attempts to be lightly cynical that I’m left more to wonder the logic in any of it. Why would Tree, even if she is hellbent on resetting her time loop each day for poorly defined reasons, elect grander and grander forms of self-annihilation? Has she discovered a new type of fetish or drug high that’s only achievable by her, Phil Connors, and Tom Cruise? If more people were trapped in time-loops could this become a competition or sport of who has the nastiest suicide? Is there a subtext that Tree’s achieved a higher plain of adrenaline junkie existence, and that we can only truly know life when it’s ending in spectacular gory fashion?
These are silly questions prompted by an even sillier movie that has not a whole lot to offer beyond the turning of its wheels and a wholly unnecessary explanation as to why Tree is in a time loop. (Genuinely, would it make it better or worse if you knew Ned Ryerson was responsible for Phil’s Sisyphean hell?)
Those wheels will be very appealing to its target audience because of Rothe’s game face, as well as a mostly on-point ensemble that is happy to play along. Special props should also be given to Rachel Matthews who returns as Danielle, the vainest sorority sister in a house that acts as a giant reflective mirror. She like Rothe is given a special showcase in the third act to reveal comic timing that is far more amusing than any of the sci-fi desperation occurring in the next room about multiverses and the alleged road not taken.
There is some pretense of a moral in the movie, as well as an intriguing if underdeveloped plot twist taken in a Sliding Door fashion. But Happy Death Day 2U is not that movie. It’s the movie where Jessica Rothe opens a bottle of Drano at a grocery store and cheers the sales clerk before drinking deeply. It has its charm, but personally, that’s not my poison.