Making one PG-13 slasher film that's actually enjoyable to watch is impressive enough. Making two of them would probably require divine intervention. So it's surely the right decision that, in crafting a follow-up to 2017's startlingly fun and effective Happy Death Day, returning writer-director Christopher Landon would elect to use the slasher form more as a conceptual hook than the actual purpose of the thing. Happy Death Day 2U - the title is the dumbest thing about it - is a whole lot of things, in several different genres, and though horror is somewhere on the list, it's merely one of the many strands of the film jostling for attention. There's comedy, there's sci-fi, there's romance, there are two music video sequences, there's a weirdly bent mid-credits scene that I'm almost tempted to call satire.

Once again, though, and to my enormous satisfaction, there's mostly character drama, which is just as fucking weird now as it was in 2017. Last time, you might recall (the film takes time to recap the original, but it does so with frantic annoyance), Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) learned, through the process of dying over and over again on a birthday that wouldn't stop repeating itself, how to let go of the traumatic past that she's been hiding behind a veneer of slick, nasty, bubble-headed sorority girl peppiness. This time, she gets caught in another time loop, this time in an alternate timeline, which gives her the opportunity to prevent that trauma from ever occurring in the first place. The cost, of course, is that pain and loss are what cause us to grow as people, and by overwriting her loss, Tree is denying the life events that have shaped her, in the process refusing her own identity, as well as eradicating the history of the alternate universe Tree that she has presently replaced.

It's not, to be sure, the most sophisticated or psychologically acute rendering of that particular character arc - this is a film that includes a comic suicide montage set to Paramore's "Hard Times", after all - but that is the character arc, and it's treated with care and seriousness by everyone concerned. Find me another slasher movie final girl making those kind of moral choices, why don't you (or really, any other moral choices at all). It's a role that has a lot of various things for Rothe to do, and feels sort of like it was designed at least in part to facilitate a chance for her to show off a splashy array of big emotions and dramatic situation. It's much appreciated, particularly since the first Happy Death Day didn't turn out to be the instant "a star is born" moment for her that I and a good many other folk hoped and expected it to be: inasmuch as HDD2U is anything at all, it's a love letter to Rothe and an all-encompassing sales pitch to any and every casting director that might happen along the way. Given all of that, it's maybe a bit unfair to say that she's better here than she was in the first film; but anyway, she is. After having given Tree a complete arc already, Rothe and Landon do excellent sequel-writing work in re-purposing bits of that arc, but going over those bits in a different direction and for different ends. It's really very fine, touching character work; inexplicably so.

The character arc is in this way a microcosm of the film entire, which is basically the same thing, only different. Putting a person in an endlessly repeating day for the second time is obviously implausible (though it's a good ironic joke), so HDD2U announces, almost immediately, that bwa-ha-ha, we had it wrong the whole time: Tree was caught accidentally in the middle of a bizarre science experiment conducted by Ryan (Phi Vu), the roommate of Carter (Israel Broussard), the boy she's fallen in love with during all her trips around time. And now the experiment is getting even loopier. If that seems dumb, the film is fine with that; the main goal here is not even the modest level of bloodless tension that the first film mustered up when it wanted to be more of a slasher film than a light comedy, nor is it the pleasant mind-bending fun of indie sci-fi. It's all about Tree's annoyance, and her increasingly impatient endurance of how wildly unfair the universe has decided to be to her all of a sudden. It's a character comedy through and through, laughing at and with the protagonist's put-upon weariness, and indulging in a lot of cheerfully depraved visual gags about death and the fragility of body, something it's enabled to do by making it absolutely clear even faster than the first movie did that suffering is simply not actually a thing in this franchise.

The results are much, much sillier than Happy Death Day; they are also much broader and spectacular, in much the way that Back to the Future, Part II (which is pointedly name-dropped) is bigger and grander and messier than Back to the Future. Most importantly, for my tastes, the new film is simply more fun: freed from the requirement to do anything but follow its own random impulses to see what new ridiculous situation it can devise to force poor Tree into, the film can just be playful. Even in its most openly maudlin scenes, the sense of joyful invention is never very far away. If we want to compare it to a different '80s high-concept comedy franchise, maybe it's more like the move from Gremlins to Gremlins 2: The New Batch: sure, the complete abandonment of any serious genre conviction (it's no more a sci-fi film than a slasher film) might annoy some fans of the original, but the sheer cartoon giddiness that has been enabled as a result is intoxicating and delightful. If the most fun part about the original movie was the way it played around with the slasher form, the most fun part about the sequel is simply that Tree is an interesting, inexplicably layered character, and it's a great time hanging around with her and indulging her peevishness and feeling empathy for her pain and desire. And as much as I enjoy slasher movies, a good character comedy, well-acted and made at enough of a level of competence that it's not distracting, is an entirely satisfactory replacement.