Movie review: Hector and the Search for Happiness

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)


On a quick film-by-film comparison, the Peter Chelsom-dircted Hector and the Search For Happiness, based on the book of the same name by by François Lelord, would seem to share quite a bit of storytelling DNA with that other recent quest for meaning in a moribund life, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013).

Both focus on men caught in stultifying domestic situations who for reasons varied and quite individual to their respective situations, find themselves on a globetrotting quest to re-invigorate their lives, in the process challenging everything they thought they knew about themselves.

But where The Secret Life of Walter Mitty possessed a certain natural vigour and liveliness (borne of Mitty’s (Ben Stiller) desperate circumstances) and a genuine almost cartoon-ish gee-whiz playfulness, even if its finale was a little too neat an answer to an existential crisis, Hector and the Search for the Happiness is limp and forced by comparison, emphasising at every point how quirkily insightful it is.

The fact is, for all the animated drawings that adorn the “Happiness is …” or “Happiness Isn’t …” homilies in Hector’s (Simon Pegg) notebook and the larger-than-life personalities that he encounters along the way such as jaded banking millionaire Edward (Stellan Skarsgård) in Shanhgai and Diego (Jean Reno), a drug lord in Africa (it is treated as one country rather an entire continent), Hector and the Search for Happiness feels oddly strained at almost every point.

It is as if it needs to telegraph every step of the way that Hector, who is bored by his predictable life, his overly-mothering girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) and his psychiatric practice whose patients don’t seem to get any better, is making Real Changes, that every stamp in his passport is an Event where he learns Significant Things that will Transform Him.

You might well say that is the nature of the beast, that a movie like this is designed to show a transformative journey, but somehow for all its quirky charm, and off beat adventurism, the film never quite manages to feel like something truly immersively significant is happening.



That is not necessarily the fault of Pegg who is wonderful in the role of Hector, evoking everything from child-like glee in his first stop Shanghai where everything seems startlingly new and lit with the promise of nirvana-like freedom to foetal-position inducing fear when he is imprisoned by a militia in Africa who only release him thanks to his links to the much-feared drug lord Diego whose wife Hector inadvertently ends up treating for a depressive illness.

The problem lies I suspect in the schmaltzy screenplay by Peter Chelsom, Tinker Lindsay and Maria von Heland, and perhaps the source material too though I haven’t read the book so that is purely speculation, which celebrates reasonably simplistic insights as Kafka-esque epiphanies on the human condition which they most clearly are not.

It also expends little time in setting up the launching pad for Hector’s great quest for enlightenment – the opening monologue proclaims Hector is happy with his well-ordered, carefully plotted life before turning him into a freakishly angry and massively dissatisfied man in no time flat with little indication this is even in the offing save for occasional glimpses of him as an emotionally-isolated young boy (Jakob Davies) – nor does it go to too much trouble to establish why Clara, who appears dismissive of Hector’s attempts to contact her during the trip, is suddenly the emotional epicentre of his life.

All of these major plot points simply seem to happen out of nowhere, with little satisfying connecting of the dots to give the audience any reason to appreciably care about Hector’s supposedly life-changing revelations; caught up in the smile-inducing fluff that fills the middle of the film, which does carry a certain happy charm if you don’t examine it too closely, you don’t realise how little emotional substance is present till the closing scenes when we are supposed to be cheering  Hector on as he rushes to embrace the rest of his life, and feel no real reason to do so.



Even when we meet the two most important people in Hector’s early life, university friends Agnes (Toni Collette), with whom Hector was once in love and who he pursues to LA to see if the spark can be re-kindled – Agnes, happily married and successful makes it clear that won’t be happening, serving him up some home truths while she does so – and Michael (Barry Atsma), an NGO doctor in Africa who has found love and fulfilment, and quite possibly happiness, far from home, there is little sense that these are significant relationships underpinning Hector’s life.

It is obvious that these people matter to Hector but so superficial and shallow is the character – it is testament to Pegg that Hector comes across as likeable and endearing as he does at certain points – and so greeting card banal his epiphanies-lite, that these two people, and indeed pretty everyone he meets, are treated as simply more props to advance Hector’s rather surface-deep search for the meaning of life.

Having said all this, there are genuinely charming characters and scenes in the movie.

Hector’s almost total abandonment to his new found freedom in Shanghai – where he speculates that “Happiness could be loving two women at the same time; a rather glib insight that he scratches out when he realises his new love is not what she seems – is fun to watch as is his meeting with an African woman on a flight who in the middle of a chaotic flight, invites him to meet her family over a steaming pot of sweet potato stew.

Even his meeting with a Tibetan monk (Togo Igawa), who fits every cliche in the book from humble, wise and clownishly irreverent, possesses the sort of homespun wit and wisdom it is not almost impossible not to be affected by.


There is an undeniable lightness and warmth to all these scenes but they don’t really seem to lead anywhere substantial, with no sense that Hector is learning anything that is really having any sort of profound effect on him, other than giving him fodder for his well-drawn in and written in notebook.

His final act revelation when it does come, during a test on his emotional responses by Agnes’ colleague Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer), a soon-to-be Noble Prise rewarded authority on happiness, appears seemingly out of nowhere with no discernible links to any of the fortune cookie-insight generating experiences leading up to it.

Hector and the Search for Happiness is not a poorly-made movie; in fact there’s every indication that Chelsom has gone to a great deal of trouble to craft a movie that says something and has a certain amount of quirky fun doing it.

But it never quite manages to meet those lofty good intentions, nor convey the supposedly transcendent changes in Hector in any way that stays with you for long after the film; in fact so slight and lacking in lasting impact is Hector and the Search for Happiness that your awareness of having seen it, or of its pithily obvious bon mots of wisdom, disappears seconds after the final credits roll.






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