Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review: Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

Rated PG-13 for violence, language, sexual material and thematic elements

Score: 3 out of 5

When I reviewed it, I said that Happy Death Day was a perfectly serviceable horror-comedy, the sort of crowd-pleasing, bread-and-butter film that the genre needs to complement the more esoteric and artistic entries that have garnered all of the attention from horror fans lately. It had a familiar premise juiced up with a neat hook and some laughs to go with the scares, it delivered on what it promised, and time has been fairly kind to it in my memory. People apparently agreed with me, because it was a pretty sizable box-office hit, such that a sequel -- creatively titled Happy Death Day 2U -- was immediately put into production. And really, what can I say? It's once again a perfectly serviceable horror-comedy, this time leaning far more heavily into the comedy side of the equation to the point where the horror elements feel almost like an artifact; I've seen one critic compare it to the Bill & Ted movies in that regard, especially with the sci-fi turn its story takes this time. And honestly, given that horror was the first film's weakest element, it was a smart move to downplay it this time around. This film was by no means a classic, but then again, neither was the original; I'd say that they're both about equal in terms of quality, working on somewhat different levels but both being worth your time.

The big twist with this film is that, while its predecessor left it up in the air just why Tree Gelbman was stuck in a Groundhog Day-style time loop, here we find out immediately that it's the result of a quantum time experiment that Ryan, the roommate of Tree's boyfriend Carter, was performing with some of his friends. We find this out because, the day after Tree's ordeal, Ryan is himself now stuck in the loop, with Tree and Carter offering to help him escape. Unfortunately, when the dean gets fed up with the constant brownouts that the experiment has been causing and tries to unplug and take away the machine, a whole bunch of weird timey-wimey stuff happens and Tree finds herself once again reliving the birthday from hell. Only this time, things are slightly different; Carter is dating the bratty sorority leader Danielle, Danielle is herself much less bratty than Tree remembers, Tree's roommate Lori is sleeping with the professor Dr. Butler instead of Tree (and isn't the killer), and most critically, Tree's mother is still alive. However, one thing has stayed the same: there is a murderer in a baby mask on the loose. Tree must now not only try to survive, stop the killer, and get back to her own universe, but also decide whether or not this alternate universe she's in may or may not be preferable to her home.

The film wisely downplays the horror of the first film, which wasn't particularly effective outside of a small handful of scenes, in favor of playing itself more as a straightforward sci-fi comedy. The plot revolves less around Tree having to find a way to not get killed, and more around her trying to find a way to get back home while dealing with the moral dilemmas of such and how her own life might be impacted. This turns the film into a showcase for the comedic stylings of Jessica Rothe, who once more proves to be a gifted talent when it comes to making her "basic bitch" heroine Tree into a likable and compelling protagonist. Rothe is once more asked to do a lot here, and once again, she pulls it off, flinging herself into some hilarious set pieces while planting her character on the fine line between Anna Faris and Jennifer Lawrence: a young woman who embodies a very "cool girl" attitude but isn't afraid to use her comic chops make herself look ridiculous. One of the high points of the first movie is that Tree wasn't the usual slasher movie heroine, but the sort of person who would've been among the first victims in such, getting her own development to establish a more well-rounded character than the "hot blonde sorority sister" archetype might suggest, and once again Rothe sinks her teeth into it, especially with her emotional response to seeing her mother alive again. As for the rest of the cast, Israel Broussard's Carter is once again an effective love interest for Rothe's Tree, and Phi Vu gets a lot more to do in an expanded role as Ryan, the guy who explains the technobabble that the time loop revolves around and masterminds the plan to bring her home.

Not all of the comedy was effective. While I liked Rachel Matthews as the very different version of Danielle in the alternate universe, one who is condescending and passive-aggressive rather than an up-front asshole, her big comedic moment, in which she pretends to be a blind French exchange student, got a few chuckles initially but largely fell flat through its utterly farcical tone clashing with the darker comedy of the rest of the film. The horror side of the film also felt, if anything, even more edgeless than it did last time; while I was surprised by what it was able to get away with or otherwise imply with its PG-13 rating, the scares were rote slasher boilerplate from top to bottom, feeling almost like a parody of a PG-13 teen slasher film. This was a horror-comedy that wholly depended on its comedy side and its characters to pull it over the finish line, and it was fortunate to have such and largely avoid falling into the same trap that ensnared Club Dread, but even so, the only effective thing about the horror here, the Babyface killer's mask, was lifted from the first film.

The Bottom Line

It's more of the same, for the most part, though it's also got a few additional twists up its sleeve. It's still pretty mixed as a horror film, but that was never where this series' heart was, and as a comedy it shines. If you liked the first, you'll enjoy this too.

Also, the post-credits ending was hilarious, and makes the next film look like it's gonna be bonkers.

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