Happiness for Beginners offers only stale misery

Happiness for Beginners

Netflix’s latest rote original is another marker on the streaming service’s increasingly long trail of apathetic content production. 

 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 happens when hundreds of hours of labor come together over months to create something so bland and ineffectual it feels years old even on a first watch. 

Ellie Kemper is Helen, a rigid and hyper-serious woman who decides to attend a beginner’s backpacking course on the first anniversary of her divorce. It’s Wild for people too burdened by responsibility and rationale to undertake the PCT. As Helen attempts to find herself, she meets the other hikers: a cast of cartoonish characters based on tropes that were dead horses 15 years ago. But, in a surprise twist, her little brother’s best friend, Jake (Luke Grimes), has also signed up for the course. The two butt heads until (of course) sparks start to fly. 

The main problem with Happiness for Beginners isn’t its simple rom-com structure or frustratingly inaccurate depiction of through-hiking; it’s its lack of soul or depth. It’s a film populated by forgettable, flimsy paper dolls rather than actual characters. Every character begs the question, “This?? We’re still doing this in 2023??”

Happiness for Beginners
Happiness for Beginners, Netflix.

It could perhaps be forgiven for its ditzy-gal-with-a-secret-brain characterization of Kaylee or even this vision of a divorcee that’s so lazy it can’t be bothered to show you why Helen ever got married in the first place. But Hugh, a caricature of a brassy gay BFF, is truly unforgivable. Nico Santos plays the part perfectly, but it’s a part he should never have been asked to play. The role is so reductive it ought to be rocketed back to whichever dreadful 2000s sitcom it was ripped from. 

But it isn’t just the plot that feels so soulless; it’s the entire visual style, too. Happiness for Beginners shows absolutely no sign of director/writer Vicky Wight’s personality. It doesn’t feel like any person’s perspective at all—instead, it prioritizes the glossy, inoffensive, and unremarkable Netflix aesthetic. 

The direction begins and ends with simply making sure you can see the characters on screen. There’s no dynamic movement, no use of the entire language of cinema to tell the story. It’s a romcom that doesn’t remember what makes the romcoms we love so memorable.

Happiness for Beginners
Happiness for Beginners, Netflix.

The entire thing feels emblematic of everything wrong with Netflix today. It’s as if a studio executive recognized that people will throw on Sleepless in Seattle or Moonstruck at any moment while folding laundry or making dinner or zoning out and thought, “We can make something you don’t really need to look at or pay attention to!” But then did so without realizing that the reason people put those other movies on is because they love them. They’ve seen them a thousand times because their craft makes them worth watching and rewatching. 

Happiness for Beginners shows none of that consideration. For most, it will likely register as relatively inoffensive and hardly worth such vitriol, and that’s a perspective I understand. There are far worse movies in the world than this. But the way it reeks of corporate laziness is infuriating. Audiences deserve better from Netflix, and an entire world of talented filmmakers and actors are dying to give it to them.

Happiness for Beginners makes for the woods on Netflix on Thursday, July 27th.

Happiness for Beginners Trailer:

Sarah Gorr

Sarah Gorr is a film critic and copywriter based in Los Angeles. In her spare time she's crafting cocktails and working on her k/d. You can find her on Twitter at @sgorr and read more of her work at www.sarahgorr.com.

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