Much like with her debut film, The Volunteer, writer/director Vicky Wright chooses to place a woman in an apathetic fog at the center of her sophomore effort, Happiness for Beginners (based on the novel by Katherine Center). In her first movie, the lead character was stuck in a soul-crushing job, but in this new work, Helen Carpenter (Ellie Kemper) is feeling trapped by her personal life. When we meet her, she’s just gotten married to Mike (Aaron Roman Weiner), despite the comical warning of her younger brother Duncan (Alexander Koch) and his best friend Jake (Luke Grimes).
The film then jumps ahead just a few years, and Helen is now post-divorce, but still having frequent conversations with Mike, who seems to take their communication as a sign that they should start over, after he spent most of their brief marriage being unfaithful. Perhaps in the hope of kick-starting her life and a lifetime of living as far from the edge as possible, Helen signs up for a lengthy Appalachian Trail hike/survival course led by the persnickety guide, Beckett (Ben Cook). As the group of hikers is introducing themselves to each other, Helen sees that Jake is also on this trip, supposedly by coincidence (but we know better). Happiness for Beginners isn’t exactly nuanced, so it’s not especially difficult to see that Jake has placed himself on this trip to get closer to Helen, and that all sorts of wacky antics have to happen first before they can actually wind up together.
By the strictest definition of the genre, I suppose this film qualifies as a romantic-comedy. Certainly the colorful cast of characters sets that tone with Nico Santos’ Hugh immediately stepping into the “gay best friend” role; Shayvawn Webster is Windy, the young, pretty, very personable character who seems like a more likely and suitable candidate for Jake; and Esteban Benito plays Mason, the most experienced hiker of the bunch, making him the biggest asshole of the group. My favorite of the supporting players is Gus Birney’s Kaylee, the resident weird girl who says random things, most of which result in actual laughs.
As much as the film strives to make the comedy work, it’s frequently undercut by awkward, incredibly serious monologues from a couple of the characters about their pasts, childhood tragedies, and other things that tend to make most people moody, if not outright sad. As a result, neither the comedy or the more emotionally driven material works particularly well.
Happiness for Beginners hits its stride late in the film when one of the hikers suffers a serious injury deep in the woods and the others have to band together and use their combined skills to stabilize him enough to transport him miles away where an ambulance can retrieve him. There’s something about having a purpose or a mission that helps people put things in perspective and feel useful in the world, and this is certainly the case for Helen, who exits the journey revitalized and somewhat clearheaded, even if she bolts the farewell party like an antisocial teenager.
Thrown into this messy affair at the beginning and end is Blythe Danner as Helen’s grandmother, who raised her and her brother from a young age after their parents divorced and their mother abandoned them for reason that are meant to be a mystery until they aren’t (refer back to what I said earlier about unexpectedly serious moments creeping into this story). It takes seeing a veteran performer like Danner in an fairly routine and amateurish production like this to underscore what’s going wrong in large doses around every corner. The cast is game and trying their best, but either the source material or the adaptation from Wright isn’t cutting it at a basic, emotional level, and it tanks the rest of the film. I haven’t seen Kemper really shine in a film is quite some time, so it was especially tough watching her push her comedic talents to the limits and have the film turn out so mediocre, through not fault of her own.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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