by Matt Levine
There’s more sagacious wisdom to be found inside a fortune cookie than in all of Hector and the Search for Happiness, which (inadvertently, one assumes) winds up as a tribute to the woe-is-me entitlement of the privileged western world. The titular Hector (Simon Pegg) is a well-to-do psychiatrist in London; he has a posh apartment overlooking the Thames and a gorgeous girlfriend (Rosamund Pike) named Clara who dotingly prepares his morning breakfast, ties his bowties, neatens his sock drawer, and generally does everything a man’s juvenile fantasy of saintly mother-sister-lover is expected to do. And yet, Hector feels that something is missing, which becomes clear when he starts freaking out at his patients during psychiatric sessions, ridiculing their petty problems. (The irony is apparently lost on him that he’s undergoing the same bourgeois-blasé crisis.) What is a neurotic man-child psychiatrist to do? Why, abandon his girlfriend and jet around the world in an ostentatious quest for “happiness,” of course. (The audience should take note: if you want to pursue a similar search for happiness, all you need is hundreds of thousands of dollars and friends in at least three different continents.)
Director: Peter Chelsom
Producers: Klaus Dohle, Trish Dolman, Christine Haebler, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Judy Tossell
Writers: Maria von Heland, Peter Chelsom, Tinker Lindsay, François Lelord (novel)
Cinematographer: Kolja Brandt
Editor: Claus Wehlisch
Music: Dan Mangan, Jesse Zubot
Cast: Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgård, Christopher Plummer, Jean Reno, Chris Gauthier, Chad Willett, Togo Igawa, Gabrielle Rose, Veronica Ferres, Ming Zhao, Barry Atsma
Countries: UK/Germany/Canada/ South Africa
US Theatrical Release: September 19, 2014
US Distributor: Relativity Media
With a Moleskin notebook and seemingly all of Gander Mountain’s outdoor gear in tow, Hector decides to start things off in China, eager to gain life lessons from the new experiences that surely await. But before touring the countryside or finding anything even close to inner peace, he meets a rich banker (Stellan Skarsgård) on the flight to Shanghai who promises to prove that money can buy you happiness. They enjoy a gargantuan feast, then overindulge themselves at one of Shanghai’s ritziest, most exclusive nightclubs. Yes, instead of trying to find solace in an upscale British restaurant, Hector tries to find solace at an upscale Chinese bar; now that’s stepping out of your comfort zone. While there, Hector meets and falls in love with the beautiful Ying Li (Ming Zhao), who invites him back to her hotel room and compels him to write in his Dream Journal of Idiotic Happiness: “Maybe happiness is being with two women at once.” (It could be worse: Hector falls asleep in her bed before any exotic lovemaking can occur, though the sight of her naked body when he wakes up is still meant to convey a rather phallocentric image of happiness.) This is one of the first instances in which we see Hector’s fortune-cookie aphorisms about the meaning of happiness splayed across the bottom of the screen in handwritten text, often accompanied by simple animation. If a legitimate psychiatrist were to find Hector’s notebook after this excursion, he would likely be diagnosed with extreme narcissism.
While taking Ying Li out to lunch the following day, Hector learns what the audience has already surmised: she’s a prostitute, though she’s the kind with a heart of gold who’s fallen in love with Hector’s gentlemanly nature. Suddenly, her pimp shows up on a motorbike and whisks her away (but not before slapping her a few times for getting too chummy with the clientele). Ying Li will never be seen in the movie again, but Hector feels he’s learned a somber lesson: “Happiness is not knowing the whole story.” From Ying Li’s point of view the lesson might be, “Happiness is not being victimized by the sex industry or objectified by a selfish British globetrotter,” but sadly she is not our protagonist.
Hector’s journey continues on to a remote Chinese monastery, where he is told by a Buddhist monk (for the first time of many) that simplicity is the key to true happiness. Because the monastery is improbably fitted with a satellite dish, he’s able to Skype with Clara, whose air of eternal patience is (thankfully) transitioning into outrage at Hector’s self-absorption; she reasonably asks him what the hell she’s supposed to do while he gallivants around the globe. Clara’s frustrations certainly seem more valid, or at least more relatable, than Hector’s, but this film often seems like an experiment in surrounding the main character with people more interesting than he is. Their tense conversation is cut short when the satellite dish plummets from the monastery’s roof, leading a dejected Hector to pout and moan while the Buddhist monks frolic blissfully in a windstorm while multicolored flags rage around them. In case you already forgot (which would be hard to do since it’s written on the screen): appreciating the simple beauty of life is the key to happiness.
This is a dispiriting beginning, but rest assured that things will soon get worse. Hector's next stop is "Africa" (the movie unhelpfully informs us) where an old friend of his serves as a doctor in a tiny, dusty village. Note to screenwriters setting your film in Africa: there are countries there. 58 of them, in fact. It is both presumptuous and condescending to assume that they’re all so uniform they don’t need to be distinguished from each other. Anyway, when Hector isn’t enjoying sweet potato stew with an immense extended family that seems to sing and dance around the clock, he’s being kidnapped by armed warlords who teach him the value of truly appreciating one’s life while you have the chance to live it. (I wonder if the warlords’ terrorized compatriots see it the same way.) I never would have thought Hector and the Search for Happiness would be more clumsily racist than the Adam Sandler vehicle Blended, but there you have it.
From “Africa,” Hector continues to Los Angeles, meeting a terminally ill woman on the flight who praises Hector for his empathy. This boost of confidence inspires Hector to write in his journal, “Listening is Loving” (and it only took a woman dying from debilitating cancer for him to learn it!). In L.A., Hector meets up with Agnes (Toni Collette), a former flame and symbol for the “happy” life he feels he could have led. Amid the inconsistent, irritating character that is Hector, there’s an interesting depiction of a middle-aged man who still prefers to live in fantasy, and who chases an unattainable ideal across the globe only to realize this figment of happiness is a creation of his own feelings of cowardice and insecurity. The best scene in the movie arrives when Agnes tells this to Hector bluntly and vehemently; it’s a caustic wake-up call that would have saved us a lot of grief if Hector had been told this from the beginning.
Also while in California, Agnes (a university professor in psychology) takes him to see the legendary Dr. Coreman (Christopher Plummer), who has pioneered an experimental technology for reading brain patterns in order to detect the impulses and synapses that make us “happy” (as well as sad and afraid). It’s here that a disillusioned Hector has his inevitable epiphany, discovering that the true road to happiness lies in—what else?—love and family. Hector and the Search for Happiness, in other words, is ultimately an ode to the nuclear family, and a critique of a stunted man still living in his childhood who is terrified by the prospect of neverending commitment. A character study of such a man might have been intriguing (even though this prototype appears in pretty much every Judd Apatow movie), but Hector has the pomposity to pretend that it’s investigating happiness and fulfillment instead of just tagging along with one obnoxious, Anglocentric, emotionally insecure control freak.
The film is directed by Peter Chelsom (the auteur also responsible for Hannah Montana: The Movie), who adopts a zany, energetic style in an unsuccessful attempt to appear lively and unique. There are momentary flashbacks to Hector’s childhood (involving a love of aviation and an adorable pet bulldog), those handwritten aphorisms onscreen, brief montages of western tourists hobnobbing with the locals, handmade animation and stop-motion effects, even a video of Hector’s memories and hopes projected onto the ceiling of the African warlords’ jail cell when he thinks he’s about to die. All of this amounts to a trite, prepackaged attempt at visual ingenuity; there is hardly a genuine desire to translate Hector’s fear or giddy anticipation into visual form. Even the globetrotting images of China and Africa have the same flat exoticism—they really do seem to be glimpsed by the same disinterested tourist, notching off another destination on his quest with little interest in the people or culture of such a place. The film’s aesthetic is defined by its shit-eating zeal: it’s peppy and active on the surface but mind-numbing at heart.
All snark aside (difficult though that may be), Hector and the Search for Happiness sporadically takes its analysis of the concept of “happiness” seriously. The soundbite nuggets of wisdom Hector dispenses to his patients are paralleled with the pharmaceutical company that Clara works for, which peddles chemical-induced euphoria in a pill. But it’s sadly ironic that Hector recognizes such phony, halfhearted attempts at uplift while treading the same path; the movie’s statements on happiness would come off as clichéd and obvious in any self-help book. It’s also a cliché to say that joy is elusive and indefinable, that the more you look for it the more difficult it is to find—but that’s a lesson the film could have used, since it strives so hard to be uplifting and meaningful when all it achieves is a sort of Happy Meal vibrancy. Somewhere in the world, a Chinese woman continues to toil as a prostitute, well-off people find “cures” for sadness to which the underprivileged don’t have access, and druglords and warmongers terrorize populations in unnamed African countries—but all that matters is that Hector is happy.