Film Review: ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’

"Hector and the Search for Happiness"

Simon Pegg stars in this ghastly feel-good travelogue adapted from Francois Lelord's novel.

Happiness means steering clear of “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” A supremely irritating marriage of picture-postcard exoticism and motivational uplift, this misguided comedy-drama tells the story of a British therapist who upends his comfortable lifestyle and travels the world looking for the secret to inner joy — like an “Eat Pray Love” remake for men with too much time, money and existential ennui on their hands. Trite, flat-footed, culturally insensitive, and sagging under the weight of more than 25 credited producers, Peter Chelsom’s film will need every ounce of charm and cachet it can wring from star Simon Pegg to achieve box office traction. Following an Aug. 15 U.K. release (in a version that runs six minutes longer, with negligible differences) and a North American launch at Toronto, it begins a Stateside platform release Sept. 19 through Relativity Media.

Attempting to reproduce the simple, childlike prose style of Francois Lelord’s popular source novel, an arch storybook narrator introduces us to Hector (Pegg), a London-based shrink who leads a perfectly comfortable, orderly and meaningless life. He spends his days doodling in a notebook while pretending to listen to his patients’ insipid ramblings. At home, his every need is tended to by his beautiful girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike), a marketer whose job involves coming up with clever names for pharmaceuticals. As the film takes pains to remind us, the two have no children — a condition that is clearly meant to underscore the emotional sterility of their existence. It’s not long before Hector snaps and decides he needs to make some major life changes if he hopes to do his patients (or himself) any good, and so he embarks on a solo voyage abroad, leaving things with Clara on an inconclusive note as he seeks that elusive Holy Grail called happiness.

Hector’s first stop is China, where a wealthy businessman (Stellan Skarsgard) gives him a taste of Shanghai nightlife, and where he immediately falls for a gorgeous local (Ming Zhao), only to have his dreams dashed when she turns out to be a prostitute with one hell of a mean pimp. (“Happiness means not knowing the whole story,” he scribbles sadly in his notebook.) After hanging for a while with a wise old mountain monk (Togo Igawa), it’s off to reconnect with an old friend (Barry Atsma) doing humanitarian work in Africa, where Hector gets kidnapped by thugs, helps a drug dealer (Jean Reno) get in touch with his conscience, and receives a touching lesson in gay tolerance. (“Happiness means being loved for who you are,” he scribbles thoughtfully in his notebook.) Later, he’ll minister to a sweet, cancer-stricken woman who coughs up two uplifting slogans of her own — “People who are afraid of death are afraid of life” and “Listening is loving” — before being dragged away to expire offscreen.

Elsewhere on his journey, Hector talks to animals, learns to dance, and questions anyone who will give him the time of day (which is unfortunately a lot of people) about their views on happiness. Eventually he arrives in Los Angeles, where he settles some unfinished business with an old flame (Toni Collette) and participates in a brain study for a leading happiness researcher (Christopher Plummer), triggering a dramatic climax that plays like nothing short of an emotional diarrhea explosion. If the words “feeling all the feels” have ever escaped your lips, you might well be moved to tears.

An erratic director who most recently helmed 2009’s “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and the 2004 remake of “Shall We Dance,” Chelsom (who co-wrote the script with Maria von Heland and Tinker Lindsay) has attempted to inject some visual life into Lelord’s source material — mainly by plastering Hector’s words of wisdom in capital letters across the screen and animating the cute drawings in his notebook. Far from making the movie feel sweet and disarming, however, these relentlessly twee devices merely compound the cluelessness of the drive-by cultural stereotyping on display: Shanghai is depicted as a cosmopolitan blur of night-market delicacies and Mandarin pop, while the entire African continent is reduced to a village packed with exuberant revelers and a few glimpses of exotic wildlife. (The handsome cinematography is by d.p. Kolja Brandt.)

It takes a particularly tone-deaf movie to begin with an ostensible critique of bourgeois white-male privilege, only to wind up reaffirming it in every particular, but that’s the trap that “Hector and the Search for Happiness” stumbles into again and again: Every non-Westerner Hector encounters is either a simple-minded saint or a pitiable lost soul, trotted out for a few beats to impart a life lesson or receive one. It’s hardly the ideal way to use Pegg, a reliably brilliant comic actor who manages a few engaging moments here, but never gets a grip on a character who must transform without warning into a bumbling idiot, a tantrum thrower, a sensitive caretaker or an emotionally stunted man-child, depending on the requirements of an individual scene.

In the end, though, it’s Pike (reteaming with Pegg after last year’s infinitely superior “The World’s End”) who elicits the most sympathy in the thankless role of Hector’s long-suffering significant other. Of all the bad ideas floating around in this casually racist/sexist claptrap, perhaps the most noxious is the notion that true fulfillment means a supportive wife with a bun in the oven, as Clara’s own happiness hinges on her belated realization that until she’s a mother, she’s nothing. Incidentally, Pike will next be seen in the much-anticipated “Gone Girl,” in which she plays a woman stuck in an increasingly oppressive marriage, but it’s hard to imagine a film in which this superb actress could possibly look more mistreated, marginalized and in need of an escape plan than this one.

Film Review: 'Hector and the Search for Happiness'

Reviewed at Dolby Laboratories, Burbank, Calif., Aug. 13, 2014. (In Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 118 MIN.

Production

(Germany-Canada) A Koch Media Films (in U.K.)/Relativity Media (in U.S.) release of a Bankside Films presentation of an Egoli Tossell Film, Erfttal Film- und Fernsehproduktion, Screen Siren Pictures production, in association with Head Gear Films, Star Gate Films, Metrol Technology and Film House Germany, in co-production with Wild Bunch Germany, Construction Film, in cooperation with Ard Degeto, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, with the support of Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, German Federal Film Board (FFA), German Federal Film Fund (DFFF). Produced by Judy Tossell, Klaus Dohle, Christine Haebler, Trish Dolman, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Christian Angermayer. Executive producers, Jens Meurer, Yoshi Nishio, Rainer Puls, Oliver Puls, Marc Gabizon, Markus Aldenhoven, Amelie V. Kienlin, Christine Strobl, Roman Klink, Marc Hansell, Klemens Hallmann, Benjamin Melkman, Alan Howard, Elliott Ross, Fenella Ross, Phil Hope, Kim Arnott. Co-producers, John Albanis, Nina Maag, Oliver Damian.

Crew

Directed by Peter Chelsom. Screenplay, Maria von Heland, Chelsom, Tinker Lindsay, based on the novel “Le Voyage d’Hector ou la recherche du bonheur” by Francois Lelord. Camera (color, widescreen), Kolja Brandt; editor, Claus Wehlisch; music, Dan Mangan, Jesse Zubot; music supervisor, Matt Biffa; production designer, Michael Diner; art director, Laurel Bergman; set decorator, James Willcock; costume designer, Guy Speranza; sound, Mark Noda; sound designer, Markus Stemler; re-recording mixer, Martin Steyer; special effects coordinator, Alex Burdett; visual effects supervisor, Stefan Kessner; visual effects, Lugundtrug; line producers, Brad Van Arragon, Peter Hermann; associate producers, Markus Reinecke, Yasin Sebastian Qureshi, Mohammed Hans Dastmaltchi, Jens-Peter Stein; assistant director, Paul Barry; casting, Tricia Wood, Deborah Aquila, Judy K. Lee.

With

Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, Rosamund Pike, Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno, Veronica Ferres, Barry Atsma, Ming Zhao, Togo Igawa, Christopher Plummer. (English, Mandarin dialogue)

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  1. Solange says:

    I totally agreed.

  2. David Dieni says:

    I enjoyed watching the film, made a couple of interesting points, but to be fair the reviewer is totally correct. At the end of the day it’s another unrealistic feel good Hollywood production. Everything works out in the end, which is just bullshit. The one thing that is never challenged is capitalism itself that is the cause of isolation, disconnect, personality disorders etc apart from its destruction of the planet and root cause of every war. The human race is wallowing in ignorance as we go down the gurgler. All world trade has stopped and no one is aware of what is about to occur

  3. Sam says:

    “The cluelessness of the drive by stereotyping on display: Shanghai is depicted as a cosmopolitan blur of night market delicacies and mandarin pop”
    Um yes. That IS WHAT SHANGHAI IS ALL ABOUT. IT IS THE CAPITALISTIC METROPOLIS OF CHINA AND TO CONSIDER THAT STEREOTYPING IS MORE IGNORANT THAN WHAT YOU CONSIDER THIS STEREOTYPING TO BE. And in this review you use “white male privilege.” Are you serious? Of course a variety magazine writer finds a white male privilege issue in this film. You write (or freelanced) for variety magazine. You experience white privileges everyday and the point of this movie went way over your head. If you’ve ever struggled to achieve, find, or experience happiness, you would understand what the movie is trying to tell you, but you’ve obviously never experienced that. Awful review.

  4. Murray Nightingale says:

    I quite enjoyed this movie. It is the kind of movie that people enjoy but critics hate and for the life of me I can never understand that.

  5. Jul34 says:

    The focus of this movie on having children is utterly bizarre. The only thing I’m surprised didn’t happen is a final shot of Pike–pregnant–with Hector beaming next to her. And then in big white letters it would say “Happiness is!” Because we all know that only others–particularly small others–can make us truly happy.

  6. Caroline Garcia says:

    The movie starts ok and has some nice parts, but by the end it is just another Hollywood movie. In fact, the last half hour spoils it completely. Ridiculous ending, cliches everywhere, it seems they run out of ideas. A waist. Simon Pegg is about the only thing good about it.

  7. My goodness. I’ve never been so at odds with a movie critique before. I feel Mr. Chang and I must have seen completely different movies, or at least come at the same movie from a completely different perspective. For my part, I found this a lovely, intimate and worthwhile movie. Neither under value it nor over analyze it. Just enjoy it. Simon Pegg is very good in it. I do think the movie strengthens as it moves along toward the climax.

  8. Brian says:

    Your critique may be missing much of the hidden and simple psychological empathies with subtle character impacts. To each his own indeed. Perhaps the ending is Hector’s realization that true happiness is not “found,” so to speak, but coming to terms with the way your life is, what you truly have control over, and that inside the fears, every day aggravations and moment to moment gratification, happiness lies in acceptance. Acceptance that problems to some people are problems others would love to have. Acceptance that people are who they are and change only comes from the person in the mirror. I personally take the ending as his acceptance that he himself was causing his own unhappiness, his mental reluctance move on to the real now, reaching the summit one day asking if that ladder he climbed so well was facing the “right” wall. Look at the characters, particularly their contradictions, a rich man who can have anything but doesn’t take the time to ask if he is happy and shows no reflection of it and always wanting more, a poor monk personality who had next to nothing but is overwhelmed with the beauty of the wind. His old friend residing in Africa who has freedom in being himself and his oldest friend that helps him to realize the past is the past and that is ok. Deriving serious political and social issues from it is a misprint, take the artistic brushstroke transitions as a mimic from “Big Fish,” that this is simply an iconic quest with more depth than commonalities. Becoming who you are capable of being is often a frightening realization and takes steps to actualize, developing into a cinema would be extremely difficult as well.

  9. Are you really qualified to criticize a film that a filmmaker like me likes? What the hell have you ever produced? This is an excellent, inspiring movie. Me, I’ve made a few. Unless you’ve done the same, you can spend the rest of your lifelong apology. better start right away.

  10. Richard says:

    We just saw it last night on Netflix and we enjoyed it very much. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion but this Variety reviewer comes on a bit strong for my taste and that ends up taking away his credibility. It is very good and not anything coming close to as bad as he says.

  11. Matthew says:

    So glad I watched this great film before reading your inept slam. It was fun. Your review was tedious and had the feel of someone who likes the look of their own typing. Get a life.

    • Kathleen Ireland says:

      A truly bouncing delightful, insightful,imaginative escape from the tedious, banal crap that Hollywood spews out ALL the time! Does this reviewer have a Life?

  12. benskelly2 says:

    But, honestly, how do you really feel?

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