Ellie Kemper and Luke Grimes get lost in this cliché romcom that never capitalizes on its concept.
Plot: Helen has always lived her life as far from the edge as possible. Finding herself newly divorced and a little lost, Helen decides she needs a reset and signs up for the “Adventure of a Lifetime!” The adventure is a backcountry survival course hiking the Appalachian Trail with a group of oddball strangers. From the beginning, Helen’s plan to be the best hiker is tested and she finds more than just herself in the wilderness.
Review: Call them schmaltzy, cheesy, dopey, or whatever other of Snow White’s pals you like, but romantic comedies tend to earn a bad rap. For every classic romcom like When Harry Met Sally or Notting Hill, there are countless of cliche and rote takes on the genre out there. With the popularity of Lifetime and Hallmark original movies, it has become increasingly challenging for quality romantic films that are also funny to make their way to broad audiences. Netflix has entered the fray as well as their latest offering, Happiness for Beginners, is yet another reason why we need Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and Hugh Grant to save us from the abysmal mediocrity of movies like this. Led by the woefully miscast Ellie Kemper and Luke Grimes, Happiness for Beginners offers nothing new and nothing familiar about romcoms. Instead, it limps along and never takes advantage of its own plot contrivances.
The trailer for Happiness for Beginners teases a film about Helen (Ellie Kemper) and Jake (Luke Grimes) as they fall for each other during an adult camping trip. Based on that, I thought that I could get through a couple of hours with two actors whose previous credits have entertained me. Ellie Kemper’s manic energy on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Luke Grimes’ raw emotion on Yellowstone seemed like the perfect fodder to translate into a different genre. Instead, both share virtually no chemistry in a movie that, despite being adapted from a novel, struggles to include character development naturally or even make use of the half dozen supporting characters the script spends so much time introducing. My assumption is that in translating the book to film, Happiness for Beginners retained the entire cast of characters but excised all of their reason for being included in the story.
Happiness for Beginners opens with uptight teacher Helen looking for a restart to her life after her divorce. In a flashback to her wedding reception, it is blatantly clear that Jake, the best friend of Helen’s younger brother Duncan, is completely in love with her. Helen, blind to Jake’s feelings, is so engrossed in grief from a childhood trauma that she has no clue, even though a toddler could figure it out. So when Jake unexpectedly tags along on her camping trip, Helen still cannot see the obvious. The crew attending the camping trip includes a bevy of stereotyped characters, including the gay best friend (Nico Santos), the ditzy blonde who is actually smart (Gus Birney), the nerdy Asian (Julia Shiplett), the Alpha male who harbors insecurity (Esteban Benito), the hot romantic competition (Shayvawn Webster), and the youthful troop leader who is actually not a bad guy (Ben Cook). Reducing these characters like this undermines that every actor I named does a solid job with their role. They just don’t exist for any reason other than to populate the trip around Helen and Jake.
Ellie Kemper took on the role of Helen because it is so different than the roles she typically appears in, citing the fact that Helen is a grump and pretty serious. Kemper, an excellent comedic actress, plays it so straight in this film that she does not even get the chance to be a little bit funny. At the same time, Luke Grimes brings none of his charisma in Yellowstone to Jake, a former doctor who also harbors a secret that serves no purpose to the overall plot. In fact, Happiness for Beginners features dozens of moments that could have been used to drive some drama or comedy but instead never amount to anything but a throwaway line of dialogue. One cast member, a highlight in this film, is unceremoniously written out at the halfway point, never to be seen again. Even the token inclusion of screen veteran Blythe Danner is wasted and happens to lend some credibility to the cast’s star power. Danner is good, but her total screen time amounts to a couple of minutes.
Written and directed by Vicky Wright, Happiness for Beginners is the filmmaker’s second adaptation of a Katherine Center novel. The Irish director shows some prowess behind the camera, which is wasted by the lackluster script. The comedic timing of each scene is set up but rarely do the weak lines work. Even a moment towards the end of a party feels anticlimactic rather than eliciting laughs. Some excellent song choices are peppered through the film, and the location shoot in Connecticut exemplifies the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. Many moments work, and a lot do not, with the biggest problem being that many of these sequences feel like they are from vastly different movies. Even if there had been a bit more tension in the romance between Helen and Jake, it would have felt as flat as the rest of the movie, which moves towards the ending despite not earning or generating any momentum on its own. We know the movie will end because the red Netflix progress bar shows we are nearing the end, but you would never know based on what happens on the screen.
Happiness for Beginners is neither romantic nor very funny. It struggles to elicit any laughs in its almost two-hour running time. The supporting cast is the best part of this movie, with each actor doing a great job with the limited dimensions of their roles. As much as Vicky Wright got right as a director is undermined by her shortcomings as a writer, that is still no excuse for the miscasting of Ellie Kemper and Luke Grimes. I really like both actors in every other role I have seen them in, but neither is interesting enough in these performances to care about if they end up with each other. Happiness for Beginners would barely scratch the bottom of what Hallmark and Lifetime original movies require to make it to air, and that should be more than enough to tell you whether you should check this one out or not.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/happiness-for-beginners-review/