Saturday, October 28, 2017

Happy Death Day

Bitchy sorority chick Jessica Rothe (LA LA LAND) wakes up in some boy’s dorm room after a drunken night of partying. On her Walk of Shame back to her sorority house, she encounters young lovers interrupted by lawn sprinklers, an earnest student asking for signatures on a global warming petition, exhausted frat pledges, an anxious young man wondering why she hasn’t returned his texts. She gets home, shares barbs with snooty sorority sister Rachel Matthews, is rude to roommate Ruby Modine (SHAMELESS). She meets up with older professor Charles Aitken (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN), with whom she is trysting. She blows off the lunch her father planned for her birthday. She is not a pleasant person. On her way to a party that night, she is ambushed by someone wearing a creepy baby mask who slashes her to death. And then she wakes up, back in the boy’s dorm, to live the day all over again.

Yes, someone — director Christopher Landon (from the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies) and comic book writer Scott Lobdell, to be exact — has made a slasher movie out of GROUNDHOG DAY, the 1992 Bill Murray comedy about an unpleasant television weatherman who learns to be a better person by reliving the same day over and over again. Which is also what happens to Tree, the character played by Rothe, a self-centered college student still reeling from her mother’s death three years earlier. Once Tree understands what is happening to her, she turns Nancy Drew, marking up a list of possible suspects and investigating them to find out which one hates her badly enough to want to hack her to pieces.

That HAPPY DEATH DAY works at all is due to the sharp performance by Rothe, who looks like Heather Graham, but with demonstrably more range. Rothe is in every scene, and is required to play frightened, paranoid, sexy, sassy, romantic, confident, bitchy, intelligent, and straight-ahead action heroine badass as Tree unravels what’s happening to her and enacts her plans for survival. One clever twist is that Tree begins to feel the physical toll of the many times she has been murdered. Although her day resets every time she dies, her body doesn’t, and her X-rays show lingering traces of abuse. This “nine lives” plot point as a “clock” to build suspense is pretty much ignored, not to the film’s favor.

Israel Broussard (THE BLING RING) as the first person Tree sees every morning is one of several red herrings the film delivers, though you probably won’t struggle to solve the mystery. While the film is capably handled by director Landon (son of BONANZA star Michael Landon), who shot it as a PG-13, the denouement is a downer, as the killer’s motive for murder is a sketchy one. Wisely, Landon and Lobdell dispense with an explanation for Tree’s repeating day, as none is needed and any provided would likely be silly and distracting. Of course, the “why” isn’t important. What is important are the lessons Tree learns — the hard way, unfortunately — and the changes she makes.

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