River Is Japanese Groundhog Day, But Everyone Is Bill Murray

It’s been 12 hours since I watched River. I’ve seen three movies in the meantime, all of which I loved, and yet I still can’t stop thinking of River. It’s that good, that funny, that smart, that just plain awesome. It’s a flat-out phenomenal sci-fi comedy that everyone should see.

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River begins with a simple, tantalizing premise. What would happen if everyone in a small Japanese town started experiencing the same two-minute time loop? Would people be scared? How would everyone react? And what kind of stories could a single movie possibly tell using the same two minutes over and over again?

“Sort of,” “Lots of ways,” and “So many” are the answers provided by the new film from the Europe Kikaku theater troupe. The same team made a 2020 time-loop movie called Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, but this time, though the length of the time-loop is the same, the story is much bigger and more ambitious. It centers on a quaint, quiet hotel-spa where a few of the workers quickly realize time keeps repeating itself. They realize this because each time they’re looped back to their original position, their memories are still there. Basically, it’s Groundhog Day but it’s two minutes instead of a day and everyone remembers everything. They’re all Bill Murray. That slow repetition and realization is at first played at first for comedy, then for drama, and finally world-building as the three main characters keep meeting more and more people who are in the same loop.

To give away too many of the twists and reveals beyond that premise would be a sin but suffice to say, director Junta Yamaguchi knows exactly what he’s doing and plays the audience like a musical instrument. The film toys with where to end scenes and where to loop back—and it knows when things are getting a bit too repetitive and when things need to get back on course. You’ll spend three or four loops (always in real-time) with one set of characters before that’s subtly passed off to others. Then, just when you want to know what’s been going on with the first few, it circles back. In a way, the film’s narrative threads have that in common with the movie’s structure. Things have a way of looping back right on time.

All the while, everything in River is infused with a certain, unmistakable serenity. Whether you’re laughing or crying, shocked or confused, the entire world, normal as it seems, has the fantastic, otherworldly feel of a Studio Ghibli movie. Lots of that comes from the film’s cinematography, which is just a little brighter than it should be. Some of it is also from the music which adds a whole new dynamic beyond just mood. Do the characters have to rush something? A fast melody will remind you of the urgency. Is this loop a bit more chill? Then so is the music. It ends up being almost a ticking clock of emotions for each scene in a way that’s unique and satisfying.

The entire cast is excellent in their roles; everyone has to reset themselves scene after scene, but then pick right back up where things started from. New characters are introduced constantly and they make some scenes hilariously manic and others hopelessly romantic. Then, every once in a while, you get a new piece of information that’s so wild, that you almost have to stand up and cheer.

And yes. We’re nearing the end of this review and I’m still thinking about River. It’s still making me smile and I still want to gush over it but, we think you’ve got the gist. River is an absolute triumph. A perfect blend of fantasy and sci-fi that’s completely family-friendly and laugh-out-loud hilariously brilliant. It had its U.S. debut as part of Fantastic Fest 2023.

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