I must confess that I am a rom-com addict. I will watch any one of them you put in front of me and I almost never regret it. Netflix’s latest film allows me to feed my habit. Happiness for Beginners is never more than average, both in romance and comedy. For anyone who’s not a rom-com superfan, however, there’s the occasional glimmer of a successful detail that makes this film an okay way to spend a couple of hours.
Based on the 2015 novel by Katherine Center, this film stars Ellie Kemper as Helen. A year after her divorce, she signs up for a wilderness survival course to jump-start the new chapter of her life. At the initial meeting, she’s surprised to find that her younger brother’s best friend, Jake (Luke Grimes), has also joined the group. Yeah, you can guess what that means. Helen makes new friends and gains new skills. But the central concern of a romantic comedy can never stray too far from the love story. Or from some emotional development for the lead character.
Happiness for Beginners comes up short in these areas, with a script that sometimes tries too hard to be funny and would benefit from more romance. It is certainly worth watching but viewers should not expect anything groundbreaking or artistically bold.
“You don’t realize it, but life takes a toll.”
The audience first meets Helen as she waits for her younger brother Duncan (Alexander Koch) to return to his own party so she can give him the keys to her house to housesit for her during her trip. Jake is there, and their interaction indicates that they know each other well. Unfortunately, it also shows the script straining for an enemies-to-lovers trope that doesn’t quite jell.
That pattern continues when they meet again at the introductory meeting for the survival course. With the overly quirky nature of some of the others in the group, writer-director Vicky Wight is also striving hard for laughs. Too hard. The effort shows every once in a while. Such as when Helen manages to injure herself before the course even officially starts. OF COURSE she’s bad at this! But guess who has to tend to the cut on her knee because he’s a doctor? Yep, Jake.
It’s a bit irritating that Helen is presented as inept at outdoor skills. It’s like Wight just assumed that that would instantly make her relatable. I’m also not outdoorsy and it still feels like a cheap shortcut. Even before that, though, Helen is not a character that’s easy to like. She’s too hard on her brother and seems too judgmental in general.
“I’m pretty sure he thinks you’re a phoenix.”
This problem doesn’t get any better when a plot point suddenly lets the story do a complete reverse and now Helen is the hero of the trip. However, it does allow for her character to grow a bit. She connects with her brother more, for example. I wish there were more substance to it, but it’s there. And Kemper does her best to make an appealing presence.
As Jake, Grimes does the same, and the chemistry between him and Kemper is decent enough. But I wanted more swoon-worthy romantic moments between them. When Jake gives Helen a Pablo Neruda poem to show he feels about her, it really works. The final moments are also nice, no matter how expected they are, and I also liked a couple of other conversations between them. These don’t feel like quite enough to satisfy a rom-com connoisseur, though.
Some of the locations used for this film are beautiful, and there’s a touch of effective humor here and there. When you combine that with everything else, fans of romantic comedies will have a good time with Happiness for Beginners. For other viewers, one watch will probably be enough. The lure of a rom-com can be strong– this film is just one average example.
Happiness for Beginners is streaming on Netflix.