There is a line that Helen, the protagonist of Happiness for Beginners, says within the first hour of the movie. It is that she was tired of being fed up with herself. As human beings living in a world where a person’s worth is measured by the socially constructed milestones they have crossed, self-criticism is a constant state of being. Do we have a partner by a certain age, and is that partner right for us? Was it our fault that we gave in to societal pressure and chose them, or was it society’s fault for putting that pressure on us? Have we achieved everything we wanted, or have we just done the bare minimum? How worthy or accomplished does that make us?
Every deviation from a picture-perfect life manifests as a cause of insecurity or sadness rather than simply being a facet of what makes people different from each other. We don’t know who said it, but most sadness is manufactured, either by greed or a lack of perspective. Then what can you do to fix that sadness? The answer is never as simple as “just be happy” or a stubborn positivity that doesn’t stop to take into account why and how certain things affect us. We suppose what Happiness for Beginners is saying is that happiness is a process. You have to keep looking for it anywhere and everywhere and grab it when the opportunity presents itself.
The movie starts well, and we always find the brand of humor brought by characters like Beckett to be pleasing. There is a half-hour there somewhere where our attention starts waning, but we are not sure if that is the fault of the film or of us. What we mean is that for movies like Happiness for Beginners, where the characters are not acting towards a grand scheme of things or are not trying to make a mission happen, we need to switch gears to watch them do their thing on the screen. After a hectic day or a weekend where we are looking for some quick and easy fun, it takes a while to understand the fun of watching a bunch of people discover themselves in a slow setting. Lucky for the film, the slow pace is not at the beginning, and it is entirely possible that it is not there at all, depending on who watches it.
Coming to the cast of the film, we have always liked Ellie Kemper. There is a sparkling believability that she brings to even the dullest of characters that makes for a good watch. Perhaps for that reason, we were able to accept her in the role of a person trying to find happiness after a setback in her life. At times like these, we are always confused about how to feel about the love interests of the protagonists. The quest for happiness by ourselves always conflicts with the complications of a romantic relationship. This is especially dicey in the case of Helen because she is trying to look for happiness because of the failure of her marriage, which is also heavily implied to be the reason for her change in personality from fun to boring. While it is true that validation from a person capable of occupying the romantic space in our lives hits differently, we are not often taught to balance that out with our own self-validation.
Happiness for Beginners is based on a book by Katherine Center, which we have sadly not read. We think that it may have been mentioned that Helen is into self-help books after her divorce because she seems to be quoting a lot from them. We are rather torn about the meaning of her finding the prospect of love on a journey of self-discovery. Should we take it as a facet of her moving on, or is it a representation of the old-school belief that romance is the balm to all wounds? We say this because Jake was not even the best part of the movie; it was Hugh, and it is sad that he was sidelined for just another vanilla love interest in a woman’s life. Additionally, was it not obvious to her that he called her “average” and not “having reached her full potential,” and stated those qualities as the reason he loved her unconditionally. It is a hill we are willing to die on, and this is what his poem meant. Who thought this was a good idea?
Basically, we don’t have much to complain about. Happiness for Beginners is not the first movie of its kind where a woman’s journey finds meaning because romantic love is waiting for her at the end of it all. The movie is also executed in a decent way, with good jokes and crisp editing that don’t waste too much time. Overall, it is fine, and in a twisted way, it justifies its name by saying that it is for beginners. It helps to have a foot in the comfort zone before gaining the awareness and courage to completely break out of it, which is what this movie shows Helen doing. Though we can’t say much about the book, we don’t think the movie is that deep. Acquiring that quality would have required the film to address why Helen lost herself in the marriage and why a trek and a new boyfriend are all she needs to be happy again.
A change of place is not that great an argument to make. If we had to argue in favor of the film, we would cite the incident with an injured Hugh as a major part of Helen’s personal development. But the trouble is that it is something we have guessed. Is it the first time that Helen has been in charge of something that means so much to her? Was she previously not capable of fixing things? The fact that we had to guess does not bode well for our understanding of her journey.
Our verdict is that Happiness for Beginners is a decent watch for some light-hearted comedy, but it doesn’t tell us anything more than what an Instagram caption might say: that you need to “reconnect with nature to have fun.” We are not advocating anything; we are simply translating a message.