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September 24, 2023

Netflix’s newest romcom teaches us how to be happy.

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Happiness For

Starring: Ellie Kemper, Ben Cook, Luke Grimes & Blythe Danner
Directed by: Vicky Wight


ere’s a guide to happiness: approach made-for-streaming movies with the littlest of expectation, and you will probably walk away with a couple hours killed, if not completely intellectually stimulated.

Netflix, as you may have noticed, routinely releases very simple movies, and has explored everything from romcoms (Set It Up), horror (Cam, The Babysitter), teen drama (Moxie), to Christmas specials (A Christmas Prince). While Netflix shows run the gamut from straightforward to complex and intelligent, the movies so far have all been rather one-note.

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So yes, you could watch these films for the so-bad-it’s-good appeal, but they are, quality-wise, so middling, that they don’t make that cut either.

Happiness For Beginners, directed by Vicky Wight, falls right in line with the writer-director’s preferred genre: quirky, feel-good. Everything about HFB is just precious. From the heroine, Helen’s (Ellie Kemper), backstory and subsequent precociousness, to the side characters that dot the film’s landscape, everyone is quirky, sweet, charming, and never annoying. That is, until you see through their attempts to be all of that and are like, why is this movie trying so hard?

That said, you can’t say anything bad about HFB. While Helen goes on an ambitious hike into the wilderness with a group to presumably do something daring and find herself again, she makes new friends and learns valuable lessons along the way. As with all great stories, the character comes away changed for the better, as does everyone around her.

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It is just that the storytelling is so safe, that even if the book the film is based on was more delightful, that particular aspect of it is lost. Perhaps it is an attempt to pare down the story to fit it into the limited runtime it was allotted that harms it. Book-to-screen adaptations can often disappoint anyway, unless they are painted impressionistically onscreen by the director. Mike Flanagan’s adaptations of Gerald’s Game or Doctor Sleep, both based on sprawling novels by Stephen King, are great examples of this. He stays true to the story but does a great job of compressing events, or having them occur fleetingly, simultaneously, allowing the viewer to walk away satisfied, even if they have read the books.

The best thing about HFB is Ellie Kemper. The story revolves around her, and she plays the staid, slightly jaded divorcee as endearingly as possible. If we were to present HFB as an example of anything, it would have to be of Kemper’s range as an actor. Known best for playing Kimmy Schmidt on the Netflix series, and Erin Hannon on The Office, Kemper is, for once, in a leading role that isn’t adorably zany.

That said, HFB is neither a hard hit or miss, so feel free to watch or never watch it.

Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection

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