Some films seem destined to succeed. Look at any Marvel movie, complete with a star director, superstar cast and a plot as uninteresting as it is easily digestible. The same could be said of Netflix’s “Happy Anniversary.” Director Jared Stern (“The Internship”) is an established comedy writer with a number of films under his belt. The film’s leads Ben Schwartz (“Parks and Recreation”) and Noël Wells (“Master of None”) are energetic, young and have turned in good performances before. The plot is a unique twist on the usual rom-com, chronicling a couple stuck in a rut and struggling to decide whether their relationship is worth the middle-aged decay sure to follow. It’s a strange feeling, then, to leave “Happy Anniversary” and wonder what exactly the point was.
First, the acting is fantastic. Sam (Schwartz) and Mollie (Wells) have a palpable chemistry, replete with their own inside jokes, little quirks and a marked dislike for other people. Much of the story is told in flashback, with perfume bottles or certain store signs triggering memories of the past as the couple search for a reason to stay together. We learn about their funny traditions, like escaping to a mountain retreat and pretending to be a wealthy hedge fund manager and accompanying hooker. It’s particularly rewarding to see a different side of the actors — especially Ben Schwartz, who played the brash, reckless and flirtatious Jean-Ralphio in “Parks and Rec.” In “Happy Anniversary,” he turns in an unexpectedly sweet, caring and composed performance. In one scene, Sam tries to flirt with another girl but realizes he really cares about Mollie, an attachment Jean-Ralphio would never understand.
Unfortunately, that’s the only redeeming feature of the film. The central conflict, Mollie’s unhappiness, fails to be convincing. While her flightiness in the face of an uncertain future is understandable, it feels like she blows everything out of proportion by calling Sam unromantic and running to her parents on their anniversary. Since there’s never truly a falling out, their reunion is inevitable. Everything in the middle is an unrelenting trudge through rom-com staples en route to the happily ever after both Mollie and Sam keep saying is impossible. There’s Mollie’s parents, who barely speak to each other but are trapped in a marriage without a spark, and eventually they reignite Mollie’s love for Sam by warning her not to end up like them. There’s Sam’s all-knowing confidante, who instantly tells him to leave Mollie but later helps them get back together. And then there’s Mollie’s old flame Arik, who precipitates the worst of their fight by texting her to come back to him.
The writing does little to allay the cliché factor, with moments of remembering the good times undone by over-the-top lines like, “It doesn’t feel the same without her.” The subtlety and unexpectedness of these tender episodes are totally ruined by a grandiose, wannabe romantic script, which threatens to sound like Anakin and Padme’s Shakespearean dialogue in “Attack of the Clones” if not for the authenticity of the acting. Even the humor is often a beat too late, the punchline exposed by an entrance too early, a pause too long, a character too flat.
Eventually, Sam and Mollie realize that they’re happy together and one can never really know if they’ve found the one. But these are epiphanies already documented by hundreds of other films and beaten to death over the course of the movie, well before the romantic kiss on the balcony and heart-to-heart where they tell each other as much.
Most disappointing is that after slogging through the whirlwind day of breakups, misadventures and a cycling cast of people determined to kill what spark is left in the relationship, nothing seems to have changed. Mollie is still bossy; Sam is still indecisive. They have no new ideas on how to keep from ending up like Mollie’s parents. In the end, “Happy Anniversary” is a watered-down collection of easy answers and unadventurous writing, focused more on commercial appeal than an intimate, powerful journey from happiness to hurt and back again. The result? A love story for the masses.