All over again

“Who wields it better? Me or Jack Nicholson?”

“Who wields it better? Me or Jack Nicholson?”

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 completely on the star power of a relatively unknown actress, Jessica Rothe.

Rothe plays Tree Gelbman, 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 Davis (Israel Broussard). She storms out of the room, ignoring phone calls from her dad and basically being nasty to everybody she encounters on 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 of her friends, become murder suspects when Tree is stabbed to death by a mask-wearing 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 déj&#;agrave; vu, but when she is murdered again and wakes up in the same bed on the same day again, 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. Then there’s 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 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, then break so many rules, that it becomes virtually impossible to guess the killer. I guess that’s a good thing.

Rothe just sort of comes out of nowhere to make this movie more than a rip-off of the classic Bill Murray vehicle. She was one of Emma Stone’s friends in La La Land, and that’s probably the only place most of us have seen her before. She sort of has a Rachel McAdams meets Piper Perabo thing going.

This is the darkest of dark horror comedies, and it takes major acting chops to keep something this repetitive both engaging and humorous. Rothe is basically playing a jerk that 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 the audience can hang in there and get invested in her character’s evolution.

While the movie isn’t horribly scary, it’s scary enough to put it alongside that other classic horror spoof, Scream. Actually, you could make the argument that Happy Death Day rips off both Groundhog Day and Scream shamelessly. The movie even mentions Groundhog Day at one point, to let you know the filmmakers are well aware of what’s getting copied.

When the movie finally wrapped after what turned out to be a pretty good fake-out ending, I realized I’d 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.

Happy Death Day is a decent enough goofball of a movie, and it marks the arrival of an actress you’ll probably hear a lot about in the near future. If she can make something as contrived as this movie enjoyable, just imagine what Rothe could do with some real material.