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D: Jared Stern / 78m

Cast: Noël Wells, Ben Schwartz, Rahul Kohli, Joe Pantoliano, Annie Potts, Kristin Bauer van Straten, David Walton, Leonardo Nam, Kate Berlant, Sanchita Malik, Isidora Goreshter

Mollie (Wells) and Sam (Schwartz) have been together for three years. On the morning of their third anniversary, Sam treats Mollie to a special breakfast in bed, which soon leads to their starting to make love, and then Mollie’s blurted admission that she’s not happy. What follows is an argument where the couple pick out each other’s faults, and generally explain why they shouldn’t be together. This continues as Sam drops off Mollie at her parents’ home, where she reveals that she’ll be staying there while she sorts out her feelings. Sam is in the process of starting up an online clothing business, and he and his business partner, Ed (Kohli), are due to make a pitch that day to a supplier, Willa (van Straten). While they prepare, Mollie spends time with her parents, and tries to decide if her relationship with Sam is worth saving, while also encountering an old flame, Arik (Walton), who helps put things into perspective. Later, though, an emergency involving their dog brings them together again. But it proves to be temporary – thanks to a message Mollie receives from Arik, and which Sam sees…

You could argue that the romantic comedy is something of a spent force as far as genres go these days. Sure they still get made, and some even show up in cinemas, but when was the last time you saw a truly satisfying romantic comedy? And particularly one that was actually about how romance can endure, and not the standard boy-meets-girl scenario? That’s where Happy Anniversary comes in, the debut feature of screenwriter Jared Stern – Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) – a bright, appealing look at how we determine if we’re happy in a relationship, and what things convince us that we are (or we’re not, or we might be). When Mollie announces that she’s not happy, Sam calls time on her “bullshit” and accuses her of never being happy unless she’s feeling unhappy. And though this leads to the kind of recriminations we’ve all seen before, Stern is canny enough to make those recriminations more relatable because they’re exactly the kind of things that most of us have probably brought up at times in our own relationships. Mollie wants Sam to be the same romantic guy he was when they first got together, and Sam wants Mollie to acknowledge that she doesn’t know what she wants (sound familiar?).

As Stern explores the couple’s feelings about love and romance, the movie addresses further relationship issues such as getting married and having children, but thankfully not in a way that sounds pedantic or contrived, and Stern’s screenplay finds time for subtle, pithy moments such as when Mollie’s mother (Potts) tells her that marrying her father wasn’t a mistake, but not leaving him was. The movie makes the obvious point that relationships are difficult (possibly the hardest work you never get paid for), and that knowing the person you’re with is Mr or Miss Right isn’t always easy to work out, but it does all this with an easy charm, and a lightweight, comedic approach that will keep viewers smiling throughout even if there aren’t any real belly laughs to be had. Wells and Schwartz make for an appealing couple, and they share a slightly off-kilter chemistry that benefits their characters’ predicament, while there’s solid support from Kohli as the friend who does his best to help but can only do so as inappropriately as possible. There’s a bright, sunny feel to the movie thanks to DoP Nicholas Wiesnet’s use of space and light, and editor David Egan knows just when to focus on Sam or Mollie to get the most emotion out of a scene, while Stern provides us with the requisite happy ending – though one that’s tinged, for once, with a remaining sense of unresolved issues that feels in keeping with Sam and Mollie’s journey.

Rating: 7/10 – though much of Happy Anniversary follows established romantic comedy tropes, and its tone is breezily upbeat while it explores the downside of having “second thoughts”, it’s nevertheless an engaging, enjoyable movie that avoids any hint of cynicism and roots for its main characters throughout; a minor gem that has just enough dramatic heft to make it look and sound like more than just an average rom-com, it’s quietly perceptive, and just as quietly effective.

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