Hector and the Search for Happiness
Directed by Peter Chelsom
Written by Peter Chelsom, Tinker Lindsay, and Maria von Heland
There’s a burgeoning subgenre of films about people in existential crisis setting out on a globe spanning adventure to find themselves, to figure out how to really live. These movies are ostensibly inspirational, but for several reasons, they often play out as somewhat depressing. For one thing, they seem to suggest that all it takes to feel alive is a costly globe-spanning adventure. Even more troublingly, they tend to turn the problems and wonders of the rest of the world into just more glib lessons for their heroes to learn. To the ranks of films like Eat, Pray, Love and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, we can now add Hector and the Search for Happiness.
Hector (Simon Pegg) is a disaffected psychiatrist who walks away from his successful practice and a relationship with a woman (Rosamund Pike) who inexplicably seems satisfied to exist only to serve him in order to research “happiness.” Hector travels the world meeting characters and having experiences that never go deeper than a kiddie pool and that all get summed up in glib, overly obvious fashion as Hector writes things in his notebook like “Happiness is being loved for who you are” or “Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story” as if these are the secret truths of the universe rather than the sort of thing a particularly dim relative might dole out as advice.
Hector meets a rich businessman (Stellan Skarsgaard), a wise monk (Togo Igawa), an old friend (Barry Atsma), a drug lord (Jean Reno), an old love (Toni Collette) and a Nobel-prize eligible researcher (Christopher Plummer) whose great discovery is “perhaps we should focus less on the pursuit of happiness than on the happiness of pursuit.” You can’t make this stuff up. But then, would you want to?
The film wants to be a story about an overgrown child learning to stop being coddled and grow up, but it ends up being the story about an obliviously condescending cultural tourist sampling other people’s misery for his own edification. Beyond that, Hector’s arc is barely coherent. Things happen to him along the way, but never because he exists as a character, and when his ultimate epiphany comes (as of course it must), it would seem to arrive out of left field if it wasn’t just as facile as all of the lessons that had come before.
Hector and the Search for Happiness doesn’t just fail narratively; it stumbles visually as well. Director Peter Chelsom manages to make some of the most beautiful locales in the world look like a slide show at a bad dinner party. His visual style is so indifferent, its almost surprising he co-wrote the film. No one here feels particularly invested in the proceedings, except for poor Simon Pegg, who does his best to give Hector a sense of humanity that neither the script nor the direction really helps to provide. Hector and the Search for Happiness is an argument that joy is for the privileged to discover if they can overcome their petulance, that fulfillment is really just the matter of vaguely internalizing some Chicken Soup for the Middle Aged Soul bon mots. Honestly, it’s depressing.
– Jordan Ferguson