Happiness for Beginners 2023 Movie Review
In early 2021, when it emerged that Ellie Kemper had participated, as a St Louis teenager, in the Veiled Prophet ball, a debutante party run by a group founded by former Confederate officers, the comedian took to Instagram. “I was not aware of the history at the time, but ignorance is no excuse,” went her apology. The remorse she exhibited was only the beginning of what can only be viewed as an extended self-flagellation tour.
First, the beloved mainstay of The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt appeared as a co-host of The Great American Baking Show, a feelgood program that might have felt bad to the contingent of her fanbase that reveres Kemper’s family-friendly yet absurdist bent. And now she is still steering well clear of the edge, and diving deeper into the pumpkin spice latte vibes with Happiness for Beginners.
The Netflix movie about a divorcee’s transformational hiking trip is a toasty adaptation of Katherine Center’s best-selling 2015 novel of the same name, which was a Spa Week Daily Book Club pick and a Women’s Fiction Best Bet at the romance books website Heroes and Heartbreakers.
Helen (Kemper), is a schoolteacher who used to be fun. She is so not fun any more that she has renounced sugar and attends pirate-themed costume parties in a beige work suit. To be fair, her marriage has recently ended. All we know of her ex-husband is he is a buffoon who falls on his face in a flashback scene, and that fidelity was not his strong suit.
The ink has barely dried on the divorce papers before Helen leaves Pittsburgh and sets off for a quick visit to her self-fulfilled and wine-club tipsy grandmother (a glowing Blythe Danner) to be followed by an invigorating three-week stint of no rest and relaxation along the Appalachian trail. Her hiking trip comes with a gaggle of semi-quirky strangers. Well, all strangers except for one: Helen’s brother’s smoldering and supposedly annoying best friend Jake (Yellowstone’s Luke Grimes) has also signed up to join Kemper on her gorpcore journey.
Luke’s orientation-night appearance comes as a shock to Helen, and likely to zero viewers. There are few elements of surprise where Jake is concerned. A sleepy-eyed doctor with seriously great hair, Jake floats through the movie gazing at Helen with wistful affection. In lieu of a sparky will-they-or-won’t-they story, writer-director Vicky Wright presents a conflict-free feature whose animating question is whether Helen will ever realize that this dreamy guy is, like, totally into her.
The ragtag-lite crew of 40 and unders includes Hugh, a Telfar bag-toting wannabe actor (Nico Santos of Crazy Rich Asians), and Kaylee (Gus Birney, daughter of legendary actor Reed Birney), a ukulele-strumming scatterbrain who turns out to be a master investor. Shampoo and such are out of the question, but the group never looks anything but presentable. Kaylee’s propensity for hot pink notwithstanding, the hikers’ REI and Patagonia threads all conform to the same soothing palette of a Starbucks interior.
Helen has arrived with a list of three intentions. One of them is to “find a deeper connection to nature”. This manifests as her sleeping in a tent and ogling the sun-dappled splendor of Connecticut and New York. This is a gentle movie, and there are no calamitous run-ins with bears or desperate dinners of fire-roasted ferns and tree bark. Packed with sweeping shots of gorgeous foliage, the film is a leaf peepers’ paradise. There’s even a gift under the tree for Christmas movie fans: the group, some of whom march by day in tank tops, exult in the year’s first snowfall in a head-scratching scene (then again, who knows anything about weather patterns these days).
Throughout it all, Kemper visibly strains to temper her comedic impulses. Sometimes she delivers her lines with a quickness that feels refreshingly out of place, but it’s mostly call-and-response songs along the trails and heart-to-hearts under the stars. The production might inspire some to take a hike. Others might find themselves digging up evidence of the Kemper of yore – not the debutante, but the whip-smart goofball who wrote an essay in which she fantasized about a deathbed conversation about her SoulCycle accomplishments with her granddaughter Cabinet (“No, popular girl names don’t get any less weird in the future”), who shared a riddle in a New York Times video. “Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom?” She leans back and raises her brow just so. “Because the P is silent.”
One can only hope the journey was therapeutic for Kemper, too. A cuckoo clock of a mind is a terrible thing to waste.