This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Happiness for Beginners follows a road often traveled. This romantic comedy explores familiar territory with little interest in any fresh paths, especially anything too thorny. However, what Happiness for Beginners lacks in originality, it strives to make up for with honest sentiment. Those in need of a quiet delight with charm and chuckles will be satisfied. Still, a few glasses of wine may be needed first to see past the flaws.
The movie follows Helen played by Ellie Kemper. After a divorce, she realizes her edgeless existence needs a change, and decides to find herself again on a hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail. This touristy survivalist excursion brings her into the company of several quirky characters on their own walkabouts. Not to mention a chance for romance that reminds Helen happiness is within her reach.
The plot is incredibly old hat. Lots of films have worn it to varying degrees of success. However, the misstep in Happiness for Beginners is an unfortunate predictability. It’s possible to see everything coming miles ahead of the narrative.
However, Kemper does an admirable job keeping her character charming enough for audiences to care throughout. Her performance reveals someone walking on several open wounds which makes Helen seem strong yet also fragile. This is someone without a sunny perspective in search of a better view, whom audiences will want to see succeed.
The rest of the cast, which includes Luke Grimes, Blythe Danner, and Nico Santos, fill out their oddball roles well. Unfortunately, many of them don’t get the same depth as the leads, Kemper and Grimes. There’s also a lost potential for more humor since the comical oddity of these characters as set up in their introductions isn’t used enough. It’s a shame since, when given the opportunity, cast members are clearly able to handle the comic aspects of Happiness for Beginners.
Most of what works is thanks to some solid timing from the performers. It’s hard to imagine anyone except pros like Kemper making certain conversations comical. Fortunately, many jokes land prompting some satisfying chuckles. Audiences may not fall over laughing, but they will genuinely enjoy the humor. Nico Santos as Hugh is especially great at wry comments, while Gus Birney as Kaylee is wonderfully quirky at times.
On the downside, though, too few of the relationships feel organic. Happiness for Beginners forces connections because the plot demands it rather than growing them. Montages of merrily hiking together and laughing around campfires imply burgeoning relationships instead of showing them developing. There’s never really a reason for these people to connect other than that’s what happens in these types of film. Furthermore, depth only comes to some because of confessional exposition dumps, where characters basically unload their backstories and personal revelations. Consequently, it never feels like real friendships are being forged or people evolve—the paint is just going on the right numbers. Worse, characters such as Julia Shiplett’s Sue never end up anywhere except the end of the story.
Based on a book by Katherine Center, Happiness for Beginners risks raising the old chestnut that the book is better than the movie. Still, this isn’t director Vicky Wright’s first time adapting one of Center’s novels. Having written the script as well, the broad strokes are there. The wonder for watchers is if the book offers more detailed dimensions to various roles and interactions. The problem being that with a plot as predictable as this the need for more compelling characters, stakes, and interactions are necessary to keep the movie engaging.
That said, the story maintains a decent pace. The narrative never drags. Plus, Wright does capture the picturesque aspects of the woods these hikers traverse.
In addition, it’s nice to see a film making jokes instead of self-aware ironic observations. There’s no annoying sarcasm in Happiness for Beginners. Jokes come from clever conversations, smart quips, and sharp one-liners. Though the movie isn’t a laugh a minute, it maintains a light tone even as it leans towards more dramatic territory. There are also some nice narrative choices that don’t feel common enough.
For instance, Helen isn’t really pursued. Rather, her potential paramour is present until she makes a move. As such, her character possesses an element of agency, thereby choosing love rather than waiting for it to find her. It isn’t so much Prince Charming saving Helen from loneliness and the bleak horizon, so much as someone saying, “Here I am if you want me.”
Happiness for Beginners is chicken soup on a chilly Autumn evening. Hardly a new idea and downright cliché, yet the film sticks to its formula without any irritating ironic self-awareness. This gives the movie a sentimental quality which makes it an honestly earnest effort. Some characters could’ve been better utilized, thus saving the movie from its own predictable plot. Still, Ellie Kemper carries as much as one person can with the rest of the cast picking up the slack when their potential isn’t being squandered by broad stroke storytelling and characterization.
For those too cynical to enjoy a happy ending, this may not be the movie, but those looking for a touch of romance on an overcast afternoon may enjoy Happiness for Beginners—warm sentimental cinema with a side of solid chuckles. It’ll feed romance fans in need of a fix. Perhaps it’ll even inspire some to take a similar life changing hike… or at least to read the book.