Review – “Groundhog Day”… with Knives (“Happy Death Day”)

Movies get ripped off every day. The Magnificent Seven ripped off The Seven Samurai, Critters stole from Gremlins, King Solomon’s Mines shamelessly copycatted Raiders of the Lost Ark, and now this movie that blatantly steals from the quintessential time-looping movie of all time, Groundhog Day, adding a sprinkling of Scream as well.
*

Bayfield College, home of the Bayfield Babies (seriously?) and their grotesque mascot baby masks, sees the sudden awaking of student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) in someone else’s dorm room. Surprise! Confused, angry, and suffering from a tortuous hangover, Tree (honestly, who names their kid Tree?) meets good-guy Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) while her cellphone plays an annoying Happy Birthday tune. This is NOT her idea of a good morning, even though Carter is being really nice to her.

Tree rushes out to her snooty sorority house and it accosted by Danielle (Rachel Matthews), the maniacal house sister, and then warmly greeted by her roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine) with a nice little birthday cupcake. Forget it, Tree is late for class and her hot-for teacher side-lover, Dr. Butler (Charles Aiken). Things go hurriedly until that night after a party when Tree walks home and a weirdo, dressed all in black and wearing that Bayfield Baby mask, knifes her to death. Scream!! End of story? Nope!

Gong! The tower clock strikes, her cell goes off, and Tree is back (very much alive) in Carter’s dorm room, reliving the same day again! And again. And again. And again. Each day she faces almost the same death by the same masked killer, despite her ‘learning’ the previous day’s experiences. Even Carter clues her in (on one day) about using her ‘deaths’ as ways to find out who might be the killer. After getting the hang of dying each day (and even playing with it), Tree finds something she didn’t have before; her own self-esteem and respect. Once a self-centered jerk with too much make-up, Tree sprouts into a new loving, caring person because of all this.

But all this ‘dying/reborn’ is taking its toll, as her body is weakening, so she better find her true killer fast! A happenstance TV news article and a stay in a hospital prove just the ticket as her killer appears again. But is he the baby-masked psycho who’s been killing her? There are twists, turns, brutal deaths, hilarious outcomes, thrilling chases, a pivotal ending, and a finale that’s just pure fun. And all paying tribute to the film that started it all… in fact, the movie is even mentioned at the end!

This is Scott Lobdell’s first screenplay and it’s a doozie! Richly written and imaginative with no idiotic tropes seen in those B-rip-off films; a rare treat. The tics of the time-traveling loop are all there, but Lobdell includes a great story to follow them as well, folding in a nice Scream-ish plot into the mix. Two rip-off’s for the price of one! Did I figure out who done it? Yeah, I did, but it was still fun to see all the loose ends tie up in the end, (which they did) another plus for Lobdell!

Tree (ya gotta love that name) follows Bill Murray’s acerbic Phil Conners (from Groundhog Day) arc, but with such a wonderful spin that she gives it a whole new beat. Watch her face light up as the transformation occurs; its really amazing. Christopher B. Landon, who directed most of those dumb Paranormal Activity movies, pulls out his party hat and has some fun here.

A Groundhog Day for millennials, Landon wraps the time-loop trope with a sinister knife-wielding comedy and actually pulls it off. The fun here is not only figuring out WHO the killer is, but HOW Tree is going to end her time-loop. And then there’s Jessica Rothe as Tree. Given the fact she’s in every scene, she gives a tremendous performance; whether a crazed girl on the run, or ladled with some quiet, nuanced scenes, she’s just wonderful.

Points to Israel Broussard as the quintessential boy-next-door who’s strong, yet reserved, and Ruby Modine who, for my money, plays bi-polar like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Scary good.

Groundhog Day (1993)
*

Without a doubt, there’s no better movie about time-looping than this one. A brilliant script by Danny Rubin, directed by the late, great Harold Ramis (who also has a cameo in the movie), and starring the genius that is Bill Murray. This movie has it all; comedy, drama, romance, thrills, and Murray gets to show the many facets of his comedic and serious side. 

It’s almost February 2nd–Groundhog Day–and Phil Connors (Murray), a self-centered, egotistical Pittsburgh weatherman, reluctantly has to go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on the groundhog, “Punxsutawney Phil”, to see if he sees his own shadow. Phil is joined by his wisecracking cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott) and beautiful news producer, Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell). But things start to go all Twilight Zone weird when Phil keeps waking up at 7am every morning to the tune of Sonny and Cher’s “I’ve Got You, Babe” on the radio, despite where or what he did the night before.
 
Yes, he’s stuck in a time-loop and haunted by the same reoccurring occurrences: the bum on the street asking for money, the same hotel guests greeting him, but none so irritating or exasperating as the overly happy and joyful insurance salesman, Ned Ryerson (“Y’know? ‘Ned the Head? ‘Needlenose Ned’? Bing!) played with memorable gusto by Stephen Tobolowsky. 
     
As time goes on (or doesn’t, depends on how you look at it), Phil goes quite mad. After trying to kill himself several times, even going as far as kidnapping (critter-napping?) Punxsutawney Phil from his handler (big brother, Brian Doyle-Murray), Phil tries a different tact: use the time-loop to remember facts about people and use them to his advantage… more specifically, to sleep with them. He beds Nancy Taylor (Marita Geraghty), but secretly lusts in his heart for Rita… unfortunately all his wooing and time-looping tricks don’t work on her.

He accepts his fate and decides to turn his life around. He becomes an incredible piano player, an ice sculptor, a French poet-spewing reporter, and a friend to all in this little town. But most of all, he finally wins the heart of Rita by simply being the real man he supposed to be all along. That finally breaks the “spell” and Phil wakes the next day with Rita by his side; a glorious day outside, inner peace found, and a perfect ending to this movie.

The original script has several beginnings and endings to the movie. In one case, Phil’s time-loop was caused by a witch’s spell put on him because he dissed her as he left the newsroom. Another ending (which I would have hated) had Phil and Rita waking on February 3rd and finding that Rita was now trapped in her own time loop! Controversy has been spinning around this movie for decades as to how many days or years did Phil spend in his loop?

Harold Ramis said Phil was stuck for there ten years, but then later recanted and said, “No, it was more like 30-40 years”. Whether 10 or 40 years, this enduring film has become a perennial TV icon every February. The film has even become a favorite of Buddhists because they see “themes of selflessness and rebirth as a reflection of their own spiritual messages”. The Catholics, meanwhile, see Phil’s time loop as his time spent in Purgatory and making amends. Makes perfect sense!