When HAPPY DEATH DAY hit theatres in 2017, it proved a delightful surprise. Quick, smart, visually witty and anchored by a breakthrough performance from Jessica Rothe, it defied expectations. Somehow it made the elevator pitch of “GROUNDHOG DAY but a slasher movie” turn out to be something with enough delightful thrills to make the concept its own. So I had expectations for HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U.

But come on. Surely lightning cannot strike twice. Can it?

Happy Death Day 2 U: Tree and the clock
Tree finds herself up against the clock again in HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The Idea Behind HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U

The spectacularly named Tree Gelbman (Jessice Rothe) figured out the true identity of her repeated murderer and broke out of the repeating loop of her birthday. She also managed to fall in love with Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) and become a better person along the way. Heck, she even processed the death of her mother for the first time. If she was not too young for the reference, she might’ve declared her future so bright as to need shades.

Thank goodness she is too young to do that though. Alas, the time bubble did not pop. It moved one day forward and around a new victim, Carter’s roommate Ryan Phan (Phi Vu). Thankfully, he has Tree in his corner. Not so thankfully, he might be the architect of his own shame. Even worse? Tree might not be as free as she thought.

Happy Death Day 2 U: Babyface and Ryan
Phi Vu meets Babyface for the first time in a scene from HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Writing HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U

Director Christopher Landon takes over writing duties from screenwriter/90s comic book writer extraordinaire Scott Lobdell and generally does not miss a beat. He obviously “gets” the characters and adds depth without breaking them. Moreover, the script survives an early choice that had me balking. The beauty of HAPPY DEATH DAY (or GROUNDHOG DAY, for that matter) was that the rules were clear but the cause was not. To be more specific, no one really even tried to figure out WHY this was happening, only how to stop it. 2 U offers an answer though.

For me, few things kill a movie quicker than trying to provide a scientific answer to something that should be shrugged at and labeled “the magic of the movies.” However, the script deftly introduces this explanation and immediately makes it a vague McGuffin. It is not as vague as “movie magic” but boy is it close. Instead of getting bogged down in the science, Landon springboards off it to provide a couple of nice rule changes that keep the gimmick recognizable while still putting Tree in a position of vulnerability.

Additionally, the film takes its predecessor’s focus and flips it. In DEATH DAY, Tree’s entire journey is oriented around herself. She must save her own life and improve how she interacts with everyone around her. In 2 U though, she has to look outward. She can do almost nothing and survive and, having survived, live a life she has long dreamed of. To do so, though, leaves others in danger. It is a subtle but smart shift that makes the movie and Rothe’s performance far more than a retread.

Happy Death Day 2 U: Tree and Carter
Jessica Rothe and Israel Broussard have a moment in HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Casting The Leads of HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U

In case it is not already clear, I continue to love Rothe in this part. There are a lot of less interesting ways she could have played Tree to just get out of the way and let the gimmick do the work. She refuses. Instead, she finds ways both small and large to make her performance demand attention in the best kind of way. I have seen her in other things, like LA LA LAND, and barely noticed, but after she confirms her that her performance in DEATH DAY was no fluke, I can’t wait to see her in her next above the title role.

Broussard definitely gets less to do here than in the first film, but he does well with it. Carter’s sense of steady morality in the face of some frankly outlandish circumstances could feel ridiculous or disappear amidst the wild times, but Broussard makes sure to sell it every chance he gets. There is one moment I would consider a misstep for him, but it comes from the script. Moreover, damned if he does not make it seem sensible at the moment even if it does crumble when you leave the multiplex.

Happy Death Day 2 U: Ryan, Tree, and Carter
Phi Vu, Jessica Rothe, and Israel Broussard try not to freak in a scene from HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U. Some are doing better than others.(Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

In moving the movie’s orientation away from the sorority house to the lab as its hub, HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U also significantly ups the diversity. Vu gets a promotion in the early going and rounds out Ryan from the seeming stoner of DEATH DAY. His lab mates Samar Ghosh (Suraj Sharma) and Dre Morgan (Sarah Yarkin) bring additional comic relief and a broader range of ethnic and gender presentations in a way that feels very reflective of the world outside our windows. There is not a lot of them, but they do not feel token-y or underwritten.

Ruby Modine’s Lori Spengler has a far different role than in the first film but she still feels a piece with that character. And not to keep banging this drum, but moving her part in the event also gives the film more diversity by giving her more complex screentime. Rachel Matthews also returns as Danielle Bouseman, the head of Tree’s sorority. She feels even funnier here and, in a deft move, lets us see that even if she seems completely different than the last time we saw her, certain characteristics are just baked into some people’s DNA.

Finally, Missy Yager as Tree’s late mom gets a much larger role here. Her big moment is a pretty cliché “being a mom changes your life” speech but her chemistry with Rothe makes it work.

Happy Death 2 U: Samar, Danielle, and Ryan
Suraj Sharma and Phi Vu gamely try to ignore Rachel Matthews Minnie Mouse cosplay in a moment from Happy Death Day 2 U. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Filming HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U

Landon continues to provide a strong visual wit in this sequel for which he deserves praise. Even though some of his setups are obvious — you just know that the dark hallway has a surprise in it — he nicely plays with time, letting the tension build at times and completely cutting it off at the pass at others. The real treat here though is how Landon shifts his style to fit the somewhat new genre HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U moves into. Without giving much away, if DEATH DAY was a slasher thriller, 2 U has a more sci-fi vibe to it. The director embraces that new genre and the tropes it brings with it without sacrificing his own style or the recognizable visual motifs of the first installment.

Happy Death Day 2 U: Tree and Ryan
Jessica Rothe and Phi Vu study hard in a scene from HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U. Rothe’s shirt’s acronym is a little less safe for work in the actual movie. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The Mid-Credit Sequence

I do not usually discuss mid-credit sequences on my own unless I have a very specific reason to do so. Rest assured, I will do it here. First, just as a sequence, it is delightfully bananas. I cannot imagine if and when they made a third in the DEATH DAY franchise that they would adhere to what this set up, but I would love to see them go that intensely for broke. More importantly, however, the sequence saves the end of the movie.

To be clear, the movie’s climax and aftermath work well for me. However, the literal last line is utter garbage. It was the lowest common denominator swing at a joke and it made me so damn mad. So all praise to this wild sequence for not just being a delight on its own merits but for saving me — and us, really – from having to forever live with that last line as the film’s parting moment.

Happy Death Day 2 U: Babyface
Babyface doing what the thing that mask wearing slashers do in a moment from HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

That’s a Wrap!

HAPPY DEATH DAY 2 U is a delight. I am probably overpraising it because, even a day later, I’m still high on how it made me feel. But hey, that’s an endorsement in and of itself, isn’t it?

One Comment

  1. Joe Marino

    February 14, 2019 at 11:33 am

    Thanks Gajje! I’m looking forward to seeing this.

    Reply

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