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‘Y2K’ Review: Rachel Zegler Can’t Save A24’s Occasionally Bemusing Sci-Fi Comedy

In 2017, actor and writer Kyle Mooney unleashed the delightful film “Brigsby Bear” into the world. While not a perfect work, it found plenty of humor and heart in its strange story of a man taken from a bunker he has been unknowingly trapped in all his life only to discover the show he’d been watching while down there never existed. It was the type of film that marked Mooney as a unique voice, moreso than his often refreshingly weird nine-season run at “Saturday Night Live.”

His second feature, “Y2K,” struggles to capture this same magic. Premiering Saturday night at the Paramount Theater in Austin as part of the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival, it is meant to be a crowd-pleaser with references galore, yet is never consistently clever enough to pull this off.

Working from a script he co-wrote with Evan Winter, Mooney also steps into the directing chair for the first time. Taking place on New Year’s Eve in 1999, it feels like it might be gesturing towards some of the similar things that “Brigsby Bear” was getting at about popular (or more unpopular) culture shaping our worlds as we grow up. However, where that prior feature was often dynamic and dark, this one gets lost in the woods of nostalgia.

To be blunt, not only is this no “Brigsby Bear,” it doesn’t even feel like the same person is behind it. One hopes Mooney can recapture what he did before in the future, but his latest plays like a sketch that has been stretched to a breaking point. Even at just over ninety minutes it quickly runs out of steam and can only coast along.

This all initially centers around two friends who are just trying to get through high school. Eli (Jaeden Martell) is more of an outcast who can’t seem to appreciate how his parents are Tim Heidecker and Alicia Silverstone. Meanwhile, Danny (Julian Dennison) is more brash and bold without fear of what people will think of him. When finding themselves alone on New Year’s they decide they’ll muster up the courage to go to a school party where they find all the various cliques separated into neat categories à la “Mean Girls.”

While there, Eli attempts to connect with his crush Laura (Rachel Zegler), who is way cooler than him. This, plus life itself, will become upended when the clock strikes midnight and technology begins to take over. Not only was Y2K even worse than anyone could have ever imagined, extending far beyond our greatest fears to what is essentially a robot uprising, but now these kids are our last hope.

On the surface, this is quite promising, with the film finding plenty of fun ways for technology to wreak havoc on the partying teens. The confines of the house party work to its advantage as it creates plenty of dangers the characters have to navigate. From the garbage disposal to the dishwasher, everything and anything can kill you in cartoonishly gruesome fashion. The trouble comes when the film leaves behind what could have been a more schlocky and fun horror movie in the vein of something like “Chopping Mall” to just wander through the woods. For the majority of the film the characters are just out and about with little direction to guide them.

The jokes soon become repetitive, with Mooney’s character of the stoner video store worker continually popping up as the worst offender, and any more creative bursts of comedy fade away. To describe a movie with a premise that involves teens having to battle technology that has developed a mind of its own as boring is a strange experience, but there is surprisingly little of that fighting in the actual film. Instead, it tries to get a whole lot of mileage out of hit-or-miss references specific to the late ‘90s. The many musical needle drops are designed to get a jolt of recognition and may just do so for some who still are bumping their old playlists, but that this becomes one of the defining traits of “Y2K” is more tiresome than anything.

The best jokes are the ones that aren’t primarily built around references at all. One character’s brutal demise involving rollerblades is one of the more memorable gags because of how sudden it is. It’s one of a few moments that seems like Mooney is trying to undercut the film’s more self-serious elements. There is just never enough to hold it together between these bits. It falls back on cringeworthy rapping and an extended late cameo, which won’t be spoiled here as it is sufficiently funny at first before getting run into the ground.

This is where the sense that we are watching a sketch that has been stretched to a feature is hard to ignore. There are gruesome and gross gags scattered throughout, though none leaves much of an impression once we move past them to the next reference. That the conclusion, where it could have thrown everything at the wall, just ends up feeling inert and anticlimactic is merely the icing on the sad cake.

While playing what are essentially cardboard cutout characters, the cast is sporadically charming with what they get. Rachel Zegler remains a great screen presence, doing what she can with a largely thankless part. She almost makes up for the more derivative diversions the film repeatedly falls back into. Almost, but not quite. You can see glimpses of the potential of “Y2K” but it all gets buried under the more basic elements that never feel robust enough to sustain a feature. If not so tied to regurgitating references, there could have been a version of the film that embraced more of the bloody chaos that first kicked everything off.

Instead, the fact that it culminates in a joke about wanting to skip one more reference via a closing song is more revealing than it is perhaps intended to be. When even the characters of the film have grown tired of its schtick, maybe it’s time to put the past away and find something new. Maybe if these kids survive this robot apocalypse they’ll grow up to watch “Brigsby Bear” to see what could have been.

A24 will release “Y2K” in 2024.

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