Overview: Despite many flaws, Hector and the Search for Happiness is saved by an excellent cast (especially a winning performance from a charming Simon Pegg), clever stylistic choices, and the genuine heart beating at the center of the film.
I usually dislike movies advertised as “feel-good movies.” I am not a cynical monster. I do not hate happiness. I do hate it when you are going to flat-out tell your audience, “Ok, don’t worry, the dog, the mother, and the sick kid in the trailer definitely don’t die. Do not worry, this movie will make you feel good.” I find that very superficial. The negative reviews and feel-good label of Hector and the Search for Happiness made me dislike it before it was even projected on the screen. I found out later that this negativity was misguided.
Hector and the Search for Happiness tells the story of a man named Hector (Simon Pegg) who has a beautiful girlfriend (Rosamund Pike) and is a successful psychiatrist, yet something is missing in his life. Hector has stopped truly listening to what his patients are saying and has become unsatisfied with his own life. Hector decides that he must go on a trip around the world to try and find what makes people happy so he can really help his own patients… and himself.
A large part of why Hector succeed is the cast. To say Simon Pegg can do no wrong is an overstatement. To say he does very little wrong is more accurate. Simon Pegg really makes the movie. He makes you laugh at and with his character; feel sympathy for his character; feel as if you are journeying along with his character. Most of all, by the end of the film, Pegg makes you feel as though you know his character quite well. It is clear that Pegg is giving the role of Hector his all, and as a result of that, he is believable. Rosamund Pike is only going to get more and more popular after the release of Gone Girl, and I could not be happier. Pike is charming, funny, and sympathetic as Clara. Pike has great comedic timing and nails her drama, though most of all, she creates an animated and more or less realistic character. I expected her character to be a mere cameo, yet Pike packs some serious emotion into her role. Much of what is wrong with the film is made up for by the surprising strength and development of Hector and Clara.
The film boast numerous cameos from name actors. Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård plays a seemingly uptight, rich American businessman who Hector meets on a plane ride to China. French actor Jean Reno is very funny as a Mexican drug dealer who Hector encounters in Africa. Australian actress Toni Collette is down to earth as Hector’s old American flame who he visits while in Los Angeles. Canadian actor Christopher Plummer makes a welcome appearance as an eccentric American professor. I was amused that none of these actors played characters from where they actually hail from. I suppose that is the beauty of acting. Each of the actors makes the most of their screen-time, which can not always be said of ensemble casts – especially in recent memory (here’s looking at you, [The] Expendebles 3 and This is Where I Leave You).
Additionally, clever visual devices/gags keep Hector lively. There are some computer animated sequences rendered to look like pencil drawings, which are creative enough, although two visual gags highlight why Hector is enjoyable creatively. (1) In a scene where Hector is in a hospital, he tells one of the doctors that he is going to China and a gong sound is heard. The gong sound turns out to merely be a metal tray dropped off screen by a nurse. Techincally that gag is silly and overdone, yet something about it struck me as very funny. (2) When Hector is on a small crammed plane traveling through turbulence and rain on his way to Africa, the exterior shot of the plane in mid-air is a model airplane being shaken around with water tossed on top of it and fabric lighting rods moving it around. The homemade nature of this effect is both funny and original, seeing as so many exterior shots these days use CGI. Visual quirks like this give Hector an overtly quirky nature that adds to the charm.
Hector has many good qualities, and alas, many bad ones. Much of what is wrong with Hector and the probable root of bad critical reception is the rapid shifts in tone. The movie skips around in a way that seems surprisingly unaware of itself. A prime example is a scene wherein Hector is visiting Africa. Hector falls asleep in the back of a taxi cab, which is hijacked by two men while he is still sleeping. The men drive away and do not notice Hector until he wakes up groggily, and then there is the classic comedic mix-up, or “whoops”, moment. This is cheesy but funny enough. The next 20 or so minutes of the film follow Hector being held captive by the men and their boss in a rat-infested cell where he breaks down emotionally and almost dies. You heard me correctly. These specific scenes have an ultimate point they are going for, a good point at that, yet it comes completely out of nowhere and is dismissed quite quickly. Certain more mature or violent sequences come seemingly out of nowhere throughout the whole film. The subject matter of these tone shifts is interesting, yet the execution is far too jarring to fully ignore.
I love The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. One of my favorite movies of last year. I never understood why most people disliked it. Hector and Mitty are similar in many ways, and maybe that is why I enjoyed Hector. I still stand by my opinion that Mitty is a great film, but I would be a liar if I did not admit that Hector did help me realize why some people may not have liked Mitty. The conclusion I came to? The perspective on other countries and their cultures. Both films are quirky adventures about a bored white male traveling to different countries while meeting different types of people from different cultures. I do not think Hector or Mitty are racist in the slightest, but I suppose Hector could be perceived as just a bit ignorant by some and I see why. Hector portrays Buddhist monks as all-knowing and wise men who can also use Skype. Africa is also portrayed as very poor in the film. While neither of these are really offensive, with Africa’s poverty even being a truth, many people tend to react negatively when a movie portrays an important setting in a generalized way. When making a comedy, people are even more touchy about this. The film has no malevolent intents, and does all it can to be respectful and mostly is. I think before seeing this film, you have to keep in mind that a lot of the negativity surrounding it stems from a touchiness about world culture in media. Honestly, this film cannot do any real damage, it has good intentions, it creates some quite meaningful scenes, and all in all, it is a comedy. Try to leave cultural perspective out of the viewing experience of Hector.
What bothered me the most about Hector was the unnecessary lapses between subtlety and obviousness. The film has some great subtle imagery, such as seemingly random scenarios where Hector is portrayed by a child with his childhood dog standing in for adult Hector. This intelligent imagery is meant to show how in some respects, Hector is still a child and is afraid of fully committing to being an adult. However, the obvious nature of the film tends to set in randomly. Skarsgård and Pegg share a scene together in a Chinese restaurant that is so obvious that Skarsgård could have just said, “Wealth and happiness are not the same thing. Look at how rich I am yet not happy. Am I subtle enough? Move on to the next scene.” For a movie that can handle subtlety so well, the blunt obviousness in some scenes is just plain peculiar.
The reason why I do not find Hector to be schmaltzy is because I bought most of what the film was selling. I chose to buy it. This film does get into some questionable territory (being held captive by African kidnappers, prostitution in China, etc), may be a bit too obvious sometimes, and can be a bit over-the-top, but the execution and character development are so sincere that I found it hard to not care about what was happening in the film. Meanwhile, the knowledge that this film was made mostly independently with a lower budget suggests that it was not made with just profit in mind, and that the filmmakers made it with at least some passion. Whether this is true or not, I do not know or really care. I got that sense that the filmmakers cared about what they were making, therefore I did too.
Right after this movie was over, I realized that I could not deny it; I liked this film. At first, I tried not to, and I almost did not, yet it engaged me, touched me, and entertained me. Sure, it has many flaws and some of it is a bit familiar, yet there is enough good to outweigh the bad. I would not encourage you to rush to theaters to see Hector and the Search for Happiness, but this little film definitely deserves to be seen.
RATING: ★★★★★★★ (7 stars out of 10)
Hector and the Search for Happiness was realesed on September 26th in limited release acoss the USA.