‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’ Review: Kind of, Sort of, Maybe Enjoyable

By  · Published on September 26th, 2014

by Sam Fragoso

Relativity Media

For 114-minutes Hector and the Search for Happiness walks the tightrope between nausea and uplift. A movie whose logline is “a psychiatrist searches the globe to find the secret of happiness,” seens congentinally constructed to evoke such mixed emotions. And so Maria von Heland and Peter Chelsom’s uneven screenplay beats on with a confluence of stirring and sickening sequences – its unrelenting optimism alternately admirable and revolting.

That said, there is something about Chelsom’s film, his first since the Hannah Montana: The Movie in 2009, that occasionally has the power to win you over.

The power lies in Simon Pegg, playing the eponymous psychiatrist who has recently become disenchanted with his life. Professional and maritally, Hector has been going through the motions. “Tidy” and “uncomplicated” are the descriptors his partner, Clara (Rosamund Pike) uses. The two appear to be content, which perhaps is better than being discontent, but is almost certainly more boring.

The modernity of their home – minimalistic furniture, white walls, matching desks, Mac desktops – is just another contributor to the stagnation they find themselves in. Overwhelmed by the comfort of his repetitive routine, Hector is at a loss – bewildered by the idea that he no longer knows what it means to be happy.

Like anyone in Hector’s situation, he decides to abscond his lover and medical practice in Britain to travel around the world with the goal of discovering a definition(s) for happiness. What follows is precisely what my plot synopsis suggests: a man traversing around the world – from Africa to Los Angeles – asking everyone he comes into contact with – from drug-lords to mothers to prostitutes – what exactly happiness means to them.

Adapting from Francois Lelord’s best-selling novel “Le voyage d’Hector ou la recherche de bonheur,” Chelsom, and Hector are quite literally drawing sketches of civilization. None of the characters Hector meets and interacts with are written with any amount of depth. This is one of the film’s greatest virtues and vices. Because while it would be interesting for Hector to stop in one place and meaningfully engage with another human being, it’s not the point of his pursuit. Yes, Hector inquires about the state of people’s happiness, and they promptly reply. Some say family and love, others point to money and sex. But Hector is taking snapshots, and while they’re occasionally telling and insightful, they’re still just snapshots. Neither the film nor Hector ever genuinely digs beneath the surface of these subjects.

That is, except for one profoundly beautiful scene in which Hector is asked to assist a sick woman on a plane. At first we suspect that Chelsom will take this anecdote down the road of conventionality, pitting our protagonist in a position where he’s forced to deliver a child or perform some sort of elaborate surgery in flight. But this is where the movie shows restraint.

The woman, middle-aged and in pain, explains to Hector that she recently had a tumor removed from her brain – the high altitudes of the flight causing her a great deal of discomfort. In the midst of Hector calming her down, placing a bag of cool ice on warm head, she begins telling him a story about a moment not so long ago in which she was playing on a carousel. Her ability to recall just this one happy, if fleeting moment brings her a great deal of joy, only to ominously ask Hector, “Was that my last time on the merry-go-round?” He pauses for a moment, considers her medical state, and then replies, with as much sincerity I’ve seen from him Pegg in a long time, “Yes.”

It takes this woman on borrowed time for Hector to have a revelation. One must live to obtain that sliver of happiness the woman describes, and what accompanies a varied life will not always be enjoyable. Relational strife, professional disappointment, spiritual uncertainty, personal disillusionment … these are elements of living that Hector is finally coming to terms with.

If not for Pegg, these types of epiphanies would come off as disingenuous, artificially manufactured claptrap designed to manipulate the masses. However, there is something intriguing about Pegg’s creation – an unabashed curiosity to his character. Hector is not driven by naivete, but uncertainty. Uncertainty of everything he’s done with his life up until this point. After years of psychiatry, he’s finally become empathetic, interested in someone other than himself. There’s a warmth to his line of inquiry that makes the movie, although occasionally overwrought with sentimentality, delightful.

Come the conclusion of Hector’s journey it’s clear that he’s simply doing the only thing any of us can do: ask others about their lives, and at the end of it all, hope to glean some iteration of insight to better our own.

The Upside: Simon Pegg, a touching scene on a plane, aerial shots of cities.

The Downside: Plot twists that are unbelievable and unremarkable.

On the Side: Needs Edgar Wright.

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