That old movie critics’ maxim — “They rarely get better.” — kind of takes it on the chin with “Happy Death Day 2U,” the winded but game sequel to 2017’s “Happy Death Day.”
It starts badly. For five minutes or more we limp through a repetition of the same “Groundhog Day in Which You’re Murdered” routine — two rounds of it — featuring bland and charisma-starved Phil Vu as the tech nerd Ryan who busts in on college coed Tree (Jessica Rothe) and Carter (Israel Broussard), awakening her from her nightly “reset” after being murdered.
The horror of being stuck with Vu as our hero/protagonist almost sets in when the plot twists around into a science experiment with Tree–Theresa has been dumped in an alternate pathway in the Multiverse, an alternate college career with the same deadly day that ends with death.
Multiverses — God how I curse the day comic book writers and their Hollywood acolytes discovered those.
Even though Rothe provides “Death Day” with the same sort of lift she gave the original, the sequel has half the laughs and maybe one fifth the shocking death moments of “Happy Death Day.”
But it still has Rothe, of “La La Land,” over 30 and showing some miles, but giving her all to reprising her sorority girl Buffy the Mad Slasher Slayer trapped in “Edge of Tomorrow.” Her Tree knows the drill, knows that every detail she forgets, every would-be murderer she fails to guess, means she’ll have to duck, hide, run and fight her way through the trauma of being stalked and killed, one more time, by a nut with a knife.
In the alternate universe where she ends up, her snippy sorority rival Danielle (Rachel Matthews) is all about charity work, sweetness that is catnip to Carter. She’s auditioning for “The Miracle Worker,” and the best and brightest sorority pres has done her homework.
“Did you know Anne Frank was deaf AND blind?”
But what makes Tree think about fighting her way to success and remaining in this version of her alternate life is the third party at her birthday (and death day) lunch with her dad (Jason Bayle).
It’s her mom, her dead mom (Missy Yager) who is still around. And if you don’t think an experienced actress like Rothe can play the hell out of the shock and emotional release of having her mother (dead before the first film started) back, you aren’t giving the “Death Day” daughter her due.
Unfortunately, the slasher in the Bayfield U. mascot’s mask (The Bayfield Babies!) is still around, too. Veteran of this time loop or not, Tree is going to feel every fresh death she faces as she tries to settle into this “better version of my life.” And that gets old quickly.
Writer-director Christopher Landon is better at calling for cute camera angles and 360 degree pans and plotting — silly and farfetched as it is — than he is at jokes and zingers, which made the first film stand out.
Take away Rothe, and there is no movie.
Perhaps the clue is in the nerdy science boys trying to explain the temporal paradox to Tree in movie terms. They, at least, know where a big chunk of this movie came from — with only the jokes missing.
“Seriously, you’ve NEVER seen ‘Back to the Future?'”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, language, sexual material and thematic elements.
Cast: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma, Sarah Yarkin, Rachel Matthews.
Credits: Written and directed by Christopher Landon. A Universal/Blumhouse release.
Running time: 1:40