Killing time

Groundhog Day meets Scream in Happy Death Day

Starring Jessica Rothe. Directed by Christopher Landon. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

A college girl learns a few lessons about life—and not being a total ass—by reliving the day she is murdered over and over again in Happy Death Day, a mediocre movie that gets by on the power of the performance of a relatively unknown actress, Jessica Rothe.

Rothe plays Tree Gelbman, a college student who wakes up in a strange dorm room on the morning of her birthday to discover she has spent the night with a bit of a dweeb in Carter (Israel Broussard). She storms out of the room, ignoring phone calls from her dad and basically being nasty to everybody she crosses along her walk of shame. It’s established fairly quickly that Tree is a campus jerk and has more than a few enemies.

All of those enemies, and even some friends, become murder suspects when Tree is stabbed to death by a masked baddie on her way to a party that evening. After her life force is snuffed out, she immediately wakes up in Carter’s bed again. She goes about the same day thinking it’s just déjà vu, but when she is murdered again and wakes up in the same bed on the same day, she figures things out. She’s living a murder mystery, Groundhog Day-style.

The list of murder suspects is long. There’s Lori (Ruby Modine), the caring, neglected roomie who baked her a cupcake for her birthday; Gregory (Charles Aitken), the slimy teacher she’s having an affair with; and Tim (Caleb Spillyards), the creepy stalker-type who took their one date a little too seriously. Even Carter and Tree’s own dad (Jason Bayle) can’t be scratched off the suspect list. In fact, director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell pile enough suspects on and break so many narrative rules that it becomes virtually impossible to accurately guess the identity of the killer. I suppose that’s a good thing.

Rothe comes out of nowhere to make this movie more than a rip-off of Bill Murray’s Punxsutawney nightmare. She was one of Emma Stone’s friends in La La Land, which is probably where most have seen her before. She has a sort of Rachel McAdams-meets-Piper Perabo thing going on.

This is among the darkest of dark horror comedies, and it takes major acting chops to keep something this repetitive both engaging and humorous. Rothe basically plays a jerk you are supposed to like and root for as she learns a few lessons and becomes a better person. And, yes, even though her character is a pompous twit at the start of the movie, Rothe manages to make her a funny, semi-likeable pompous twit so that audiences can get invested in her character’s evolution.

When the movie finally wrapped, I realized I had had a relatively good time watching it (I also appreciated the little nod to Sixteen Candles). Therefore, I’m giving it the mildest of recommendations. It’s PG-13, so if you like your horror movies hardcore and super bloody, you might be let down.