Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hector and the Search for Happiness: Keep Looking

My friend and I went to see Hector and the Search for Happiness because AMC was giving away free tickets. Free tickets were exactly how we discovered the marvelous Begin Again, so we turned up at the theater with reasonably optimistic expectations. Sadly, you can't win 'em all.

The movie tells the story of Hector (Simon Pegg), a psychiatrist who is fed up of hearing about his patients' middle-class woes and is sick of his dull, routine-obsessed existence. He lives with his long-time girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike), who ensures Hector's life is always worry-free and running according to schedule. Hector decides he needs a change and announces he is going on a global research trip to find out how people in different countries find happiness. Clara is not pleased about this sudden decision, but agrees that Hector needs to do whatever he can to feel fulfilled again. 

What follows is a very strange movie that goes from Shanghai to Africa (yes, I believe no country was specified, it was just vaguely Africa) to Los Angeles. Hector meets many people (some more stereotypical than others) and asks them how they define happiness. Answers vary tremendously and he writes them all down in his diary as "research." The movie's tone veers wildly from absurdist humor to weepy drama and it all feels weird and manipulative and rather poorly thought out. It is based on a French novel by Francois Lelord, so one can only suppose that either something got lost in translation or this is one of those books that should never have been turned into a movie. 

I will say, I've never seen Simon Pegg in a dramatic role and he acquits himself remarkably well in this film. Despite the ridiculousness of the plot and general incredulity I felt throughout, I had no trouble empathizing with Hector and getting a bit swayed by his emotions. Similarly, Rosamund Pike does a valiant job to make Clara less of a nagging ice queen and more of a loving partner. The cameos by various well-known actors throughout the movie are much more hit and miss. In the end, it seems like the director, Peter Chelsom, slapped together a stew of movie with whatever odds and ends he could find in the hope that the result would be something palatable. He did not succeed.

Hector and the Search for Happiness is a remarkably ambitious movie but it fails spectacularly. It cannot figure out what it wants to say or how to say it, and the ultimate resolution feels entirely too tame and conventional for what has been such a deeply unconventional movie. It feels like one of the sketches that would air at 12:50 on Saturday Night Live; if it genuinely hung on to that absurdist streak, it might have been successful enough to gain a cult following. However, its mawkish and ultimately predictable storytelling is a letdown that doesn't deliver any happiness at all.

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