I’d be shocked to read a review of Happy Death Day that didn’t say, “It’s Groundhog Day meets Scream!” There, I’ve said it myself — got that out of the way. It was no doubt pitched to a studio like that, and I bet every person in the room nodded and said, “Wow! Love it!” It must have sounded cheap to make and easy to sell. Surefire.
Well, even surefire things can end up missing by a wide margin. Not in this case, though. It’s a fun little movie, more of a giddy rom-com than a splatter-y slasher. (The kills aren’t wet.) Jessica Rothe, who was one of Emma Stone’s colorful apartment mates in La La Land, proves to be a lively and resourceful comedian, which is lucky because she’s in practically every shot. She plays the birthday-girl heroine, “Tree” (short for Katrina? Patricia?), who’s casually contemptuous of everyone but is humanized by being stabbed, strangled, or blown up at the end of every day. Each morning, she wakes with another chance to discover who her stalker is under that pig-baby mask with its one little tooth.
A big problem is that many students have that mask, a mascot. A bigger problem is, who doesn’t want to kill her? Could it be the curly-haired sweetie-cutie, Carter (Israel Broussard), whose bed she wakes up in every new/same day with a colossal hangover — but whom she humiliatingly spurns? (“I’m in a dorm?”) The moist-eyed boy (Caleb Spillyards) she dated and ghosted? The roommate (Ruby Modine) she derides, the sorority alpha-beeyotch (Rachel Matthews) whose boyfriend she hooks up with, the professor (Charles Aitken) she sleeps with, or the professor’s wife, who finds them together in his office with the door closed? And how about that slobbery serial killer (Rob Mello) the police have in custody but isn’t so easy to keep down?
Unlike Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s time-stuttering hero was physically unaffected, Tree wakes up weaker each day, with internal bruising, increasingly bedraggled and desperate. Her port in the storm is Carter, the boy she doesn’t remember going home with but who’s everything a non-sorority snob could want. Please, please don’t let him be the killer, we think. They’re so adorable together.
Apart from its lead actress, the key to the success of a movie like Happy Death Day is in the day-to-day variations. Midway through, director Christopher Landon and writer Charles Lobdell (mostly know for X-Men comics and an associated ’90s TV series) accelerate the action to a screwball frenzy. That’s when the picture comes alive — when it’s almost abstract, with flurries of previously seen images coming at you from new angles as Tree struggles to find her sea legs.
Matthews is ridiculously broad but I grew to like her energy. (She tells Tree that déjà vu means “someone’s thinking about you while they’re masturbating. I get it six times a day.”) Broussard is, as I said, a sweetie-cutie. The movie is no big deal, but its Groundhog Day conceit is kind of irresistible, and the genre blend seems right for this age of women seeking stability and empowerment. Tree has to seize the day and a big-ass knife.