‘Happy Death Day’ is high on tropes, dead on originality

Nick Botkin

Poster for the 2017 movie 'Happy Death Day"
‘Happy Death Day’ is like ‘Groundhog Day’ but with more tropes and less-developed characters. (Poster courtesy of Universal Pictures)

You are living the same day over and over. You cannot escape.

Sound familiar?

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It is the plot of Christopher Landon’s “Happy Death Day.” It also describes a far superior predecessor: “Groundhog Day.”

“Haven’t you seen Groundhog Day?” the protagonist’s love interest actually proclaims. Apparently, she has not. That is a real shame.

Where the Bill Murray classic is replete with humor, heart and a strong plot, Landon’s movie is little more than tropes and dark humor.

Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is our protagonist. The movie opens on Gelbman’s birthday, to the very-collegiate sound of ringing bells. She is in a boy’s dorm room. Said boy, Carter (Israel Broussard), has brought her home after a night of liberal imbibing and other less-than-exemplary behavior. Flirting, puking and dancing on a table are involved.

Hard not to like this protagonist, right?

Throughout the rest of the day, we are introduced to the contours of her life.

Gelbman has a tense relationship with her father. She is a sorority member. She also has no shortage of contempt for her roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine), who made her a  birthday cupcake.

Hint: the cupcake plays a significant role in the movie’s resolution. No joke.

“What did you wish for?” Lori asks.

“A new roommate,” Gelbman says flippantly.

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En route to a party that night, Gelbman she sees a mysterious music box, which is playing “Happy Birthday” hypnotically. Lights also flicker on campus.

What happens next? Gelbman is stabbed by a masked man. She dies, supposedly.

She wakes up the next morning to find that she is repeating the same day. And this is where the movie takes on more energy. She ends up repeating the same day over and over. This also means she gets killed numerous times. Stopping it is seemingly futile.

Of course, there must be a wise sage to help her solve the murder and live to see tomorrow. That sage? Carter. He concludes that the killer knows her birthday and they need to figure out who has motives.

The problem is that there is a long list. Gelbman has made a daily habit of stepping on toes and discarding feelings.

But this movie is not just about solving her murder. It is also about Gelbman’s own personal redemption. This particular storyline is one of the movie’s inherent weaknesses.

I felt little emotional connection to these people. That is a big problem. Characters are just speaking platitudes, but they do not seem to believe them.

“Each new day is a chance to be somebody better,” Carter says.

There are certainly places where the filmmakers could have developed character. In one intriguing subplot, we learn that Gelbman’s mother died. Three guesses as to what day she died…you guessed it.

To add insult to injury, Gelbman and her mother shared the same birthday. This is an angle that could have been better developed. I would have liked to see how grief influenced Gelbman’s behaviors. I would have liked to know more about the mother. These details would have made Gelbman a far more empathetic character.

The movie is also high on tropes and stereotypes. Sorority girls obsess over their diets. There is a lecherous professor, who is also British.

Should you see this movie? Yes, if you like a lot of energy, dark humor and a less-than-developed plot. If you want thoughtful and funny existentialism, see “Groundhog Day.”

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray gives a moving and sincere speech to the people of Punxsutawney, PA. He describes the joy of “basking in the warmths of their hearts and hearth.” The filmmakers could have given the film more heart to balance the bloodbath.

Director: Christopher B. Landon

Genre:  Horror/comedy

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine

Release Date: October 13, 2017

Running Time: 96 minutes

Now playing at: Cinemark Fort Collins 16

Collegian reporter Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @dudesosad.