Movie Reviews by LL Soares
I admit it, sometimes I make bad decisions.
Like going to see HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U (2019).
Because this was coming out last Friday, I figured I’d repost my review of the first movie here last week. And that particular review wasn’t exactly glowing, and ended with the fact that, while I really liked actress Jessica Rothe in the lead role, and I wanted to see her again, I didn’t want to see her in another HAPPY DEATH DAY movie.
Then I went and plunked down my money, and got a ticket to HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U.
The first movie, HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017) was about a college girl named Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) who keeps waking up in the same bed over and over in the dorm room of cute guy Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). It’s her birthday, and at the end of the day she keeps getting murdered by some psycho in a baby mask. Strangely, the baby face is also the mascot of the college basketball team. Each time she dies, she wakes up in the same bed, and the day starts all over again. As she realizes that the day is going to hit “reset” every time, she starts doing more and more outrageous things, knowing there won’t be repercussions (like walking around the campus naked). She also tries to figure out who’s killing her. When she solves that mystery, the loop she’s trapped in is also broken, and she goes back to living her normal life. And that’s the first movie in a nutshell.
Of course, it’s pretty much the same plot as GROUNDHOG DAY (1993), that classic starring Bill Murray as a guy who keeps waking up and reliving the same day, except DEATH DAY includes a slasher element.
HAPPY DEATH DAY was repetitive (obviously), derivative, and not really all that clever (although it seemed to think it was). The only reason to see it at all was for Jessica Rothe’s performance as Tree. She’s very likeable, and made for a great lead actor. But the script by Scott Lobdell wasn’t all that great. And the plot left a lot to be desired. The slasher (big baby face!) wasn’t all that riveting, and the big reveal, where we find out who the killer is, was mediocre at best.
It’s the perfect example of a completely forgettable film, memorable only because its star made such a big impression, despite lackluster material to work with.
Which brings us to the inevitable sequel. This was another successful Blumhouse series, which means it cost very little money, and, since the first one was kind of a hit, it went on to make a nice profit. So of course they’d go back to the same well. Again and again and again…
By the way, HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U was written and directed by Christopher Landon, who directed—but didn’t write—the first film. In the first movie, the repetition resulted in a slowly growing sense of boredom. The new movie, which some people might consider ambitious, is just a different kind of boring.
See, this time, they actually try to figure out why poor Tree was living the same day over and over again, and it almost stops being a slasher film (although the killer does pop up when it’s convenient to the story, and the reveal of who it is this time is even lamer than the first movie’s resolution), and instead becomes a sci-fi flick. The thing is, boring is still boring, no matter what genre it is.
HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U begins from a different perspective. This time our hero appears to be Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), the roommate of Carter Davis, both from the first film. Ryan spends the night sleeping in his car because his roommate is with a girl (our girl Tree). Turns out he’s working on some kind of weird machine with two other kids in the physics lab, Samar Ghosh (Suraj Sharma) and Andrea Morgan (Sarah Yarkin), that opens doorways into other dimensions, or something like that. If that’s not what it’s meant to do, then it doesn’t matter much, because that’s what it ends up doing, creating the time loops our characters get caught in.
Of course, as Ryan goes about his morning (including having the Dean, played by Steve Zissis, barge in and threaten to shut down their project), he eventually ends up in a dark lab and gets stabbed to death by our old friend in the baby mask (something that is never explained later, and I guess doesn’t matter, except to further the plot). Ryan dies and wakes up in his car again, where he was sleeping all night because his roommate Carter has a girl in their room, and the loop begins again. But this isn’t Ryan’s story, because once we find Tree again, and she realizes that Ryan is reliving the same day and that his loop has now glommed onto her, making her relive the day again, too, she is incredibly eager to stop it all before it turns into a loop without end.
Ryan’s in luck, since this means that a) he has help in trying to resolve the whole time loop thing and 2) the story transfers from him reliving the same day over and over to Tree being the star of the show and the one with the most to lose. In fact, the script seems to forget eventually that Ryan is reliving the same day, too, and it just focuses on Tree. I guess director/writer Landon got tired of Ryan.
At first, Tree keeps dying because of Baby Face. Then because she’s killing herself to start the same day over again (a humorous montage of outrageous suicides that mirrors a similar high point in the first film), and then it becomes the story of how she remembers everything when the day restarts, but no one else does (eventually, as I mentioned, not even Ryan) and she has to explain everything to them all over again day after day, and, as they try to come up with the equation that will fix their crazy machine and put time back where it belongs, they forget it all the next day, so Tree has to memorize extremely long algorithms, so they know what they’ve tried, and what failed. Which doesn’t sound very plausible at all.
And what started out as an interesting twist (moving from the slasher constantly killing Tree to Tree and her friends trying to get out of the time loop), turns into yet another repetitious snoozefest. The differences here being that, in this dimension (or time pocket, or whatever), Carter isn’t in love with Tree, he’s in love with her frenemy Danielle (Rachel Matthews), the mean girl who runs their sorority (of course, as time goes on, Carter sees that Tree is the one he belongs with), and Tree’s dead mother is actually alive in this dimension (she meets her visiting parents for lunch each (same) day at a restaurant– in the first movie it was just her widowed dad), and she has to decide whether it’s better to live in a world with her newly regained mom, but she isn’t together with Carter, or go back to the “real” world where she is with Carter, but her mom is dead. This sounds like a dramatic dilemma, but the truth is, we’ve seen all this before, and it seems more tired than profound. And the fact that we have to see it played out multiple times (without anything interesting getting added to the mix) just becomes irritating.
So there’s more in play here than just getting killed over and over and trying to solve the mystery. There’s dead people returned to life and crazy atom-smasher machines and angry deans and nerds who have to be reminded over and over what they did to fix the machine, and what they still haven’t tried, and frankly, as the movie goes on (and it’s only an hour and 40 minutes, but it seems longer), I just lost more and more interest in it, and when everything finally gets resolved, it felt predictable and kind of a big letdown (except I didn’t invest enough in it for it to be too disappointing).
Once again, the best thing in the movie is Jessica Rothe as Tree, except this time she has to give away some of her screen time to the other characters, who get fleshed out a little bit more than they did in the first movie, but not enough to really care about. And the sci-fi tropes that at first seem fresh become just as tiresome as the slasher tropes of the first film. And frankly, I just wanted to break the loop I was watching and just get up and leave. But I stayed till the end, because even though seeing this movie was a bad decision, I had to see it through, so I could warn you, the reader, not to get caught in the same loop I did.
But I can guarantee that I won’t get tricked a third time, and if there is a HAPPY DEATH DAY 3: IT’S THE SAME DAY AGAIN! (and, as we all know, trilogies are inevitable), I won’t be in the audience, no matter how they try to make it seem fresh. So next time, you’re on your own.
I give HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U a rating of one knife. Only because I like Jessica Rothe. But I don’t care about her character Tree anymore, or these movies, and I really just want her to move on already. Please! Get out of the loop of this damn series and show us what else you can do!!
Which is all in direct contrast with a new 10-part series that just debuted on Netflix called RUSSIAN DOLL, starring the great character actress Natasha Lyonne as a New Yorker named Nadia Vulvokov, who keeps dying and waking up in the same bathroom at her own birthday party, and it sounds like almost the same plot of HAPPY DEATH DAY, and yet it’s very different, and not boring at all.
I’ve been a big fan of Lyonne since movies like SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS (1998) and BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER (1999) in the tail end of the 90s. But most of you will probably know her best from ORANGE IN THE NEW BLACK (2013 – 2018), where she plays Nicky Nichols, and more recent movies like ANTIBIRTH (2016). But the thing is, there’s just something incredibly cool about her and her persona, and RUSSIAN DOLL revels in that persona, it dives head first into that persona, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
Lyonne’s Nadia begins in the bathroom at the home of her friends Maxine (Greta Lee) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson). It’s a big bathroom, and it has a weird door with a glowing chasm in it, some artwork of Lizzy’s that’s really spooky looking. This sounds like a simple thing, but it’s a strong image. Also, Harry Nilsson’s song “Gotta Get Up” begins each time Nadia finds herself in that bathroom, and it’s a catchy tune (as most of Nilsson’s work is). Nadia leaves the bathroom and goes out to the living room, where her birthday party is in full swing. The first time she leaves with sleazy professor Mike Kershaw (Jeremy Bobb), but things change up pretty quickly. By the second time Nadia’s ex, John Reyes (Yul Vazquez) is showing up at her party, leading to different situations. The cool thing about RUSSIAN DOLL right from the start is that the character are interesting, and you care about Nadia right away, and you want to know more about the people in her life. These also include Elizabeth Ashley as a psychiatrist named Ruth Brenner, who pretty much raised Nadia when she was a kid, due to the negligence of her real mother, who was suffering with mental problems, and Farran (Ritesh Rajan), Nadia’s friend who also runs a neighborhood market she frequents. There’s also a homeless man who lives in a park across from Maxine’s building named Horse (Brendan Sexton III), who is also suffering from mental issues and who eventually plays a part in the storyline as well.
Unlike HAPPY DEATH DAY, RUSSIAN DOLL changes things up fairly quickly, as Nadia realizes what’s going on, and first thinks she is losing her mind (well, insanity runs in her family), but when she realizes she’s sane, she goes about doing whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this loop thing. Things get even more interesting when she finds out that she’s not the only one, and that a guy named Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett) is also experiencing the same phenomenon, and she first has to earn his trust, and then the two of them go about trying to solve the mystery and get out of the time loop together. RUSSIAN DOLL benefits from a smarter script, better actors, more developed characters, and more interesting twists than HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U. It also doesn’t hurt that RUSSIAN DOLL has more time to explore what’s going on and what’s causing it, and showing us how the characters change and develop, since it’s a 10-chapter series (each episode is 30 minutes long, so it’s an easy show to binge-watch). But the big question is, could I sit through five hours of HAPPY DEATH DAY and the answer is a strong No. Meanwhile, I loved RUSSIAN DOLL and look forward to more, if it gets renewed for Season 2.
RUSSIAN DOLL was created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, with Headland and Jamie Babbit directing the episodes (and Lyonne directs one episode). The show has a strong creative team and everything works, from the acting to the scripts to the soundtrack. In these kinds of complex plots, there are bound to be flaws, and I’m sure there are a few lapses of logic in RUSSIAN DOLL, but frankly it’s so good that I didn’t notice. I was too busy enjoying it.
The bottom line is that HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U revels in its gimmick, and eventually wears out its welcome. RUSSIAN DOLL transcends its gimmick, giving us a more satisfying experience that leaves us wanting more. I give RUSSIAN DOLL a score of four knives.
© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U ~~ one knife
LL Soares gives RUSSIAN DOLL ~~ 4 knives.