Review: ‘Welcome to Happiness,’ Starring Kyle Gallner, Olivia Thirlby, Nick Offerman, Brendan Sexton III, and Keegan-Michael Key

Welcome to Happiness is more interested in being cutesy than being satisfying. The film from first-time writer-director Oliver Thompson, with bouncy songs backing every single scene, a magic door, and mystical figures offering big-grinned life guidance, is basically an extended self-help commercial masquerading as a movie. The movie is about a children’s book author, and Welcome to Happiness feels like a child’s understanding of morality and forgiveness—and for adults, it’s not that enlightening.

The film focuses on twentysomething Woody Ward (Kyle Gallner), who has published four children’s books and is in the middle of writing his fifth, “Rutherford the Complacent Cat.” He’s mired in writer’s block, but he has another responsibility as well: Every so often, he receives a fax with some questions on it. A stranger will knock on his door. He’ll ask the stranger the questions from the fax, he’ll ask the stranger to hold a rock and concentrate on a specific color, and if the rock’s partner turns the color the person was concentrating on, then he’ll show them a special, magic door in his closet.

The door has no handle, and Woody has never seen the door open from the other side. But the strangers will always end up going through it, and Woody will never see them again. It’s a strange responsibility to have, and Woody has never wondered what the door does, but he trusts his landlord Moses (Nick Offerman), so he does it.

Aside from the Woody storyline, there are two others being told during Welcome to Happiness: One focuses on an orphan, Ripley (Josh Brener), still living in his parents’ mansion after they were murdered during a break-in years before. He meets the self-hating Niles (Brendan Sexton III) when he agrees to buy a rare baseball card Niles is selling, and Ripley then puts Niles in contact with Proctor (Keegan-Michael Key), an eccentric weirdo who then pushes Niles in Woody’s direction.

There’s a web of people here interacting with each other, and each of them is looking for something. Woody wants understanding of the door and what opportunity it offers—and why he’s never been chosen to go through. Ripley wants to be able to move on from his parents’ shocking death. Niles wants forgiveness for something he’s done in the past. Connecting them all are Moses and Proctor, and the relationship they have with the door is where Welcome to Happiness puts its focus.

If this all sounds really complicated to you, that’s because it is! Welcome to Happiness has this overarching message of “Everything happens for a reason,” but that feels like unbelievably superficial advice given the traumas and tragedies that these characters either caused or had happen to them. Death, murder, loss—all of those feel undervalued by Welcome to Happiness, which has quirky characters deliver this advice about how “what’s done is done” and “it would be disastrous to undo it.”

That mentality obviously trivializes individual pain, but those are the kind of platitudes Welcome to Happiness traffics in with a cherry smile. “The spider web of cause and effect is infinite” and “Live with what you did” are some of the lines thrown around as coping mechanisms, and by the time the film ends in a bona fide sing-along around a campfire, Welcome to Happiness feels like it’s settled on a simplistic self-help ideology instead of putting in the work to advance its characters.

It’s all pretty disappointing because this cast is great: Gallner has some manic moments toward the end that remind of his excellent turn as Beaver in Veronica Mars; Sexton does the same kind of tortured, wounded work that made him a standout in the otherwise-infuriating The Killing; and Key brings his likeably charming self to the role of weirdo guru Parker.

But the film has so many nonsensical elements that their acting is overshadowed: circus-like music and staging in Parker’s home; a slow-motion sequence of people walking up a set of stairs; inescapable songs gratingly playing in every scene (with self-important lyrics like “Society swallows a sedative, afraid of their dreams”); and a conclusion that implies supernatural elements but doesn’t clarify them.

At one point, Woody has to ask Niles, “I’m happy, true or false?” and Niles replies “Does that mean you or me?” That kind of existential wondering is what makes Welcome to Happiness unique, but its precious approach to grief and recovery overwhelms any nuance the script may have.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Guttenbergs