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February 12, 2019

‘Happy Death Day 2U’ Review: Jessica Rothe Delivers Another Killer Performance in this Pitch-Perfect Sequel

happy death day 2u review

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An unlucky person finds themselves living the same day, over and over again, in a continual loop. If they happen to die, they have to start the day all over again. And things are exactly the same…except when they aren’t. Sounds pretty familiar, right? It should. It’s the plot of Groundhog Day, but it’s also the plot of several other notable titles: Edge of Tomorrow, the recent Netflix series Russian Doll, and of course, Happy Death Day, the clever slasher flick from 2017.

Now here comes Happy Death Day 2U, a sequel that might not have seemed likely when the credits on Happy Death Day rolled. After all, the person stuck in same day – college student Tree Gelbman – was able to close the loop, and become a better person in the process. Surely Tree couldn’t get stuck in a loop again…right?

It turns out she can. Sort of. Happy Death Day 2U, directed by Happy Death Day filmmaker Christopher Landon (who also assumes screenwriting duties this time) takes what the first film set up, and goes absolutely bananas with it. Back to the Future Part 2 gets name-dropped at one point, and that’s clearly the type of sequel Landon is going for here – bigger, weirder and even more complex. Unlike Back to the Future Part 2, though, Happy Death Day 2U is actually better than its predecessor. It’s a supremely confident film, bursting with humor, horror and a surprisingly large amount of heart. I had an absolute blast watching it.

At the same time, Happy Death Day 2U almost shouldn’t work. For one thing, the movie does not stand on its own whatsoever. If you haven’t seen Happy Death Day and are thinking of watching this anyway – don’t. You will be lost immediately (despite a quick, humorous recap that Tree provides at the start). For another, the sequel goes for full-blown comedy, which might seem a bit jarring when compared to the first film. While there was humor in Happy Death Day, it was still trying to primarily be a horror film. Happy Death Day 2U has some scares, but they’re secondary to the farcical nature of what’s going on. Landon is embracing the absurdity of it all, and creating something hilarious in the process. But the tonal shift might catch some viewers off guard.

Once again, Tree is stuck in a loop, with some notable changes. For one thing, as Happy Death Day 2U begins, we see she’s not the only one reliving the same day. The other poor soul is Ryan (Phi Vu), roommate to Tree’s boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard). We learn rather quickly that the entire time loop phenomenon wasn’t just some sort of random event – it was actually the side-effect of an elaborate science experiment created by Ryan and his nerdy, brilliant friends, Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin). The film wastes no time in both setting this up, and cluing Tree in on the action. That may sound rushed, but it’s actually kind of refreshing. The first film gave us all the real set-up we needed, allowing the sequel to just hit the ground running.

An accident blasts Tree back into the same damn day from the first film – but in another dimension. Everything looks the same, but certain things (like relationships, and the living status of several previously dead characters) have changed. One thing that’s still the same, though: a killer in a baby mask is out there, ready to murder Tree. Sounds kind of like a retread, right? A sequel that, like a person caught in a time loop, is just re-doing the same thing over again? But it’s not. Landon’s script is so wonderfully weird, and so continuously clever, that Happy Death Day 2U grabs hold of you from the start, and pretty much never lets go.

On top of all that, Landon adds a surprisingly emotional underbelly that I was not expecting. Did I shed a tear or two watching Happy Death Day 2U? I’ll never tell (I absolutely did). There’s a sweetness on display here that’s both disarmingly earnest, and unapologetically cute. It might not be what you’re looking for in a film called Happy Death Day 2U, but it’s what you’re going to get – and how wonderful it is. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a romantic angle that works, and works exceedingly well. The relationship between Tree and Carter isn’t as fleshed-out as I might like it to be, but the film does such a charming job drawing us into the love story of these crazy kids that we can’t help but sigh contentedly.

Anchoring this whirlwind of tones, styles and storytelling methods is Jessica Rothe, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses – even though I’ve only really seen her in the two Death Day films. Rothe doesn’t seem to be what you’d call a “big star”, and that honestly needs to change immediately, because she brings an unbeatable amount of energy, charm, grace and wit to her portrayal of Tree. Rothe balances physical comedy, quick-witted humorous dialogue, and big emotional beats magnificently, to the point where I’d be happy to watch ten more sequels to this franchise, as long as Rothe is involved. What an absolutely delightful actress.

The cast around Rothe does well, too. Rachel Matthews, once again playing Tree’s sorority sister Danielle, gets a lot more to do in this sequel, and reveals great comedic timing in the process. And Phi Vu as Ryan, and Suraj Sharma and Sarah Yarkin as his nerdy friends, a diverse group of whip-smart geeks who bounce off each other like pinballs, help open up the world of the movie.

I’ll admit to feeling some skepticism when a Happy Death Day sequel was announced. To return to that story when the narrative seemed firmly concluded felt like a mistake. I’ve never been more happy to be proven wrong. As long as Landon is taking risks like this, and taking this franchise to wild, expected places, and as long as he brings Rothe along with him, audiences are in for a treat.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10

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