Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day 2U is a fascinating deviation from his 2017 Groundhog Day slasher riff that first laughed in death’s face. Landon and co-scribe Scott Lobdell distance themselves even further from hardcore horror treatments – almost entirely ditching Happy Death Day’s tepid subgenre commitment – and head into blackened Weird Science territory. Dare I say it’s more a quantum physics time paradox laugh like something from a futuristic Scooby Doo episode (hero gang, masked killer, zoinks abound)? Happy Death Day 2U almost outright abandons terror to design a more emotionally-driven teen comedy that just so happens to feature an early death sequence montage (and even then, it’s played for smiles).
Oddly enough though – coming from someone who wasn’t overly keen on Happy Death Day – the switcheroo actually works.
Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) has a new lease on life after the events of the first film. She’s dating nice-guy Carter (Israel Broussard), has got rid of psycho killer Lori (Ruby Modine), and no longer has a baby-masked pursuer reclocking her days – until she wakes up on her birthday. AGAIN. Ryan’s (Phi Vu) college grant project – in lieu of scientific jargon – blasts a rift in time that conjoins dimensions and swaps players. It’s back to square one for Tree, but her challenge has a new set of rules.
Landon’s sequel doubles-down on the zany world Blumhouse is allowing him to build, reinvents Tree’s stalker-killer-cycle without repetition, and enriches character development by side-carring PG-13 slasher additives. Happy Death Day 2U realizes sci-fi limitlessness in a way that spins ambitiously out of whack yet Landon still displays God-like control. Happy Death Day is one-note – live, die, repeat. No such rehashing this time though, as sparking energetic orbs create temporal passageways that “Butterfly Effect” theoretical inconceivabilities with moral consequence. It’s the depth and zaniness this critic hoped Landon would punch home in round one.
Second time’s the charm?
Laughs are the primary focus for Landon and Lobdell here, which – as warned – means that the scares suffer. Tree’s standard “kill myself to start over” highlight reel rolls viciously cheeky demises such as woodchipper diving, bathtub electrocution and bikini skydive freefalling – with an A+ landing – over Paramore’s funkified “Hard Times” background jam. Horror elements exist, sure, but Happy Death Day 2U quickly brushes these replay value notes under the rug after Act I. Tree avoids a knife-wielding John Tombs, introspectively searches inward for answers and through the power of friendship teams with Ryan’s hypothesizing scientist squad (Sarah Yarkin as “Dre” and Suraj Sharma as Samar). Frights are forgotten (appropriately) and watered-down Animal House hijinx are found.
Surely this horror-devoted critic will take issue with Landon’s “‘eff off” to Babyface’s diminished role this time around, correct? Surprisingly, not the case.
Tree’s journey from salvation to reboot to ultimate epiphany is a darkly humorous and heartwarmingly affective commentary about moving on (The Final Girls level). Spoilers will cause me to remain a bit vague, but Tree’s forced to choose between the life stolen from her and the qualities that once defined her. As in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, this “leap of faith” notion strikes hard during a conversation between Carter and Tree. “Pain is what makes you, you,” Carter reassures in a matter of words. In these genuine moments of touchstone warmth, desire never wanders towards wishing Tombs would interrupt with a fateful stab. Who knew a sequel spawned from overkill murders would be so shockingly mesmeric by way of self-healing, not self-mutilation.
Moving on, let me be clear: Jessica Rothe is the reason Happy Death Day 2U works. When thrust back into her (re)living hell, Tree’s punk-angst frustration is filled with alpha aggression, cavalier ownership and still loaded with wink-wink confidence. As a daughter grasping onto familial bonds – filling holes in her character’s soul – my does Rothe convey profound complexities of human choice. She’s a powerhouse, pure explosive energy, and a superstar in the making (we’re already behind). Let her and Samara Weaving play sisters in *anything* and watch the performative fireworks fly. Rothe deserves every ounce of praise she’ll undoubtedly be anointed for her reprisal of Tree Gelbman.
Other characters step up when necessary, but it’s hardly requested. Even so, Rachel Matthews as sorority Queen Bee Danielle steals a heist distraction sequence when tasked with occupying Dean Bronson (Steve Zissis). Ryan, Dre and Samar, meanwhile, crunch dry erase formulas and crash sequential coding with pop-up spam porn as college nerds, still finding humor in stereotypes (“Did she call me Samosa?”). Returning characters find new importance, while parallel trajectories redefine others’ personality makeup. What you see is not always what you get, but the actors all work to expand how we view their once-simple bit parts.
MORE FROM THE WEB
Happy Death Day 2U still has its stumbling points though, which can’t always be ignored. Sappy young adult dramatics are fairly after-school special on multiple occasions, highlighting a shift in tonality that won’t be viewed favorably by all. Humor remains content in a Detention Lite reality where college dialogue reduces to nutsack talk and Back To The Future references. These instances depict where horror’s dangerous lens feels most absent, especially during Tree’s finale showdown with [redacted]. Yearning for that biting edge, we’re left with quirky students “nom-nomming” churros and spilling Yoo-hoo bottles in slow motion.
Still, in the end, Christopher Landon succeeds where few horror sequels do. Happy Death Day 2U is hot-’n-fresh, often hilarious, and bursting with live-or-let-die attitude. Jessica Rothe this blistering supernova of talent who murders more scenes than Bayfield’s mascot slasher villain; her guns-blazing performative approach deserving of Landon’s franchise-leading bestowment. An angry, kick-ass, not to be tested presence that’d fill three separate theater screens it’s so colossal. Who knew the less deadly Happy Death Day would be the one to win me over?
Happy Death Day 2U is a more ambitious, more entertaining - albeit less horror powered - time-warp sequel that proves Jessica Rothe's blinding talent no matter what dimension she's in.