In Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day and sequel, 2U, everything happens quickly but nothing actually happens. Landon’s films indulge the viewer’s wish fulfillment in reconciling past mistakes but blandly suggests that you can only be set free from the past’s circuitous loop of despair when you learn from those errs. Or: Groundhog’s Day. But if Landon’s aping of Harold Ramis’ culturally-accepted quote unquote classic (never been a fan) served as the blueprint for his first film, then 2U embodies the films of another filmmaker entirely: John Hughes (also: never been a fan). Not that Hughes’ influence couldn’t be felt throughout Landon’s first film (the antiquated sexual politics, the blasé and ultimately mindless examination of white privilege, etc.) but it all seemed underplayed within the novelty of its structure. 2U is rather insistent on making the insular experience of one woman repeating her death into a communal, ensemble piece filled with goofy asides and facile attempts at “subversion”. 35 years after Molly Ringwald’s birthday slipped the minds of her parents in Sixteen Candles and we still have to deal with a woman’s narrative getting hijacked by a couple of generic dude-bros. History’s cyclical, and intellectually and emotionally we still live in the 1980s; cinema like Happy Death Day 2U would have you believe that it’s admirable for that quality.
The film opens with an altogether rote reexamination of its predecessor, where Landon utilizes a tracking shot to follow Asian-tech student Ryan (Phi Vu) from his Kia® Soul back to his dorm where he’s greeted by requisite goofiness in a throwback to the first film’s walk of shame. There’s no effort to conceal what this scene is out to do and as such it’s filled with so many wink, wink, nudge, nudge moments so as to make it virtually unendurable. I suppose this is all intended as satire but it’s hard to accept it as such when the volume is set to 11 (to adhere to the 80s vernacular in which this film reveres).
Yet to consider that it’s this moment where 2U is at its most creatively verdant speaks volumes as to how imaginatively bankrupt the film happens to be. The film once again realigns its perspective onto Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) as she must uncover the mystery of her own death in what’s now an alternative universe. This time, however, she recruits the help of Ryan and his cadre of classifiably nerdy associates, while Carter (Israel Broussard), her beau from the previous film, is in a relationship with her sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews). The crux of the film finds Tree not only have to solve her own murder but to consider which universe she’d prefer to stay in: the one where she’s in a relationship with Carter or the one where her mom is still alive. Which I mean: c’mon.
Key to my resistance of 2U’s attempts at jockeying for any emotional grandeur is (1) how self-conscious its sense of humor happens to be, which can be so nihilistic and so clearly motivated to draw out a specific kind of reaction and (2) the formal inadequacy in the exercise as a whole. It’s not especially surprising given how schematic these sort of narratives can become, but one would assume that the novelty of the Death Day brand is in the shock and anxiety of looming death. Landon possesses no formal proclivity toward actually addressing those anxieties and instead banally imagines death as a series of jump scares or pithy one-liners intended to yank out a laugh. The cast, the film’s singular highlight, can only do so much to combat the lack of imagination behind the camera and on the page.
Whereas the first film concludes with an open acknowledgement that it essentially ripped off Groundhogs Day, 2U is just so self-consciously smug that it would almost suggest that it was something other than a vapid chore. Save the time, refrain from the cold of a February winter, and consider reading Chuck Klosterman’s collection of essays in But What If We’re Wrong and rewatching The Farnsworth Parabox episode of Futurama. The combination would be infinitely more rewarding.