Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) / Comedy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: R for language and some brief nudity
Running Time: 114 min.
Cast: Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno, Ming Zhao, Veronica Ferres, Christopher Plummer
Director: Peter Chelsom
Screenplay: Maria von Heland, Peter Chelsom, Tinker Lindsay (Based on the novel by Francois Leland)
Review published October 8, 2014
Simon Pegg (The Boxtrolls, The World's End) stars as the titular Hector, a psychiatrist whose life is so predictable and routine to the point where he feels he has squeezed out any ability to be happy, and he's having a hard time himself coping with a growing sense of irritation with career, relationship and himself. He decides to embark on a journey around the world in order to find out the essence of happiness, and scribble what he learns down in an illustrated journal in order to distill them into a life guide. Leaving behind his faithful girlfriend Clara (Pike, Gone Girl), who loves him for being exactly how he is, he puts a strain into the relationship by trying to go way beyond his comfort zone. From Shanghai to Tibet to Africa to Los Angeles, Hector's journey gives him much fodder for thought on from whence contentment derives, but ultimately finds that the key to his own happiness might have been where he originated all along.
Adapted from a French-language novel by psychiatrist Francois Lelord, this dramedy directed and co-written by Peter Chelsom (Shall We Dance, Serendipity) spins a tale that some might compare to other globe-trotting-to-find-self adventures like Eat Pray Love and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but ultimately delivers a different message in the end about the true meaning of happiness: finding contentment in one's own life. Hector discovers that the things that people often strive for in order to make themselves happy -- money, women, drugs, relationships, religion -- aren't really enough in and of themselves. Happiness comes from within, and no amount of external stimuli can change the fact that even the richest playboy might feel depressed and lonely without balance.
Problems with the film come from the uneven tone, which meshes not-really-funny comedy, not particularly compelling drama, and not entirely profound fortune-cookie philosophy into a not nearly engaging enough delivery. Despite a handful of good supporting players that includes Stellan Skarsgard (Nymphomaniac Vol. I) , Christopher Plummer (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Toni Collette (Tammy), and Jean Reno (Le Chef), none of them are on the screen long enough to give viewers anything more than a comfortably familiar face to watch, while the main thrust of the film feels either too obvious or not fleshed out enough, depending on what you're seeking going into it.
The film works its best in the beginning scenes in which hector is in his element, particularly in his interplay with Clara, who is portrayed with wry and quirky appeal by Rosamund Pike. Pike and Pegg work well together, and none of the scenes that take place in between the conversations between the two come close to sustaining nearly as much interest. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Hector and Clara seem to fit so well together, Hector's selfishness nearly drives them apart. On his very first stop in China, he's willing to cheat on her with the first club girl who shows an interest in him, while he continues to rebuff his supposed beloved, who is growing ever more impatient for his return, that he's not done filling his journal with dime-store "wisdom" he could get from cracking open any self-help book randomly. That the whole point of the trip seems for Hector to try to rekindle a lost love with an old college flame just makes us question whether we care about him finding happiness at all when the one woman who has made him happy in the past is delving into depression due to his own self-centered pursuits.
Just as Hector might have saved himself a considerable amount of money, time, and heartache if he were to read a great book on the subject, or even a great movie, instead of trying to find happiness in places that really aren't geared to deliver much of it at all, so too do we, the audience, begin to suspect that there really isn't much of a key to discovering happiness to be found within the whimsical, Hallmark-Card-worthy story we see in front of our eyes. Humor, romance, escapism, and emotion -- that could have made us at least feel something, even happiness, but Chelsom's tale never congeals, and the search and ultimate discovery of happiness never spills over. Except for the end, that is, when we discover that there's more joy to be found in our own lives than the two hours we just spent on such an uninspiring and shallow movie that thinks it's far more than that.
©2014 Vince Leo