Mid-Depth Film Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness

Far be it from me, and forgive me for asking, and I don’t mean to pry, but how many pops of yellow can you find?

Movies like this make you smile a little. Sometimes, they make your nose hurt and your eyes well up. Other times, they make you roll your eyes and shake your head. But they can also make you think on your own life with mounting disappointment and sadness.

Hector and the Search for Happiness* (2014) stars Simon Pegg as the titular Hector, a psychiatrist who is fed up with the routine in his relationship with his pharmaceutical marketing girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) and his practice.

Based on the French novel Le voyage d’Hector ou la recherche de bonheur (Hector’s Voyage and the Search for Happiness) by François Lelord – who by the way is an actual psychiatrist and has written other books on the topics of happiness, love, stress, and life – the film follows Hector as he travels the globe on his quest to understand what makes people happy. On his journey, he meets a number of simple and extraordinary people who bring moments of pleasure, fear and pain, joy and celebration, and all kinds of revelatory perplexity to Hector’s predictable and tidy life. Directed by Peter Chelsom, best known for Shall We Dance (2001), Serendipity (2004), and Hannah Montana: the Movie (2009)

So, what about the film prompted my disappointment and sadness? Note: Spoilers Ahead.

Making comparisons. Hector is loaded. Yes, he dresses sensibly and most of his time is spent among the poor and such, but, as a person who has never been able to travel on her own dime (meaning I stopped traveling when I turned 18) I can’t help but be a bit cynical and jealous of Hector’s ability to take his journey. Traveling the world is so often a key plot point in films that follow the Happiness Quest theme (think Eat, Pray, Love), and yet it is often beyond the reach of the below-average wage earner. For some it is because of finances, for others it is lack of time. Yet it is a bucket list dream many of us still hope to fulfill. And Hector’s journey reminds me that my own journey is still out of reach. Uh, jealous much? Yes. Very much. I’ll get over it.

Now, some films let the viewer live vicariously through their character’s journey. We cry when they cry, we laugh when they laugh, and we feed on their pursuit of life. For me, that did not happen with Hector and the Search for Happiness. I spent most of the movie shaking my head and mumbling, “You idiot” to Hector’s naivete and blindness. Like I said, I was jealous and Hector is a little hard to like once you get to know him. I appreciate how the film recognizes that conflict by using the women in his life, particularly Agnes (Toni Collette), to point out the distasteful aspects of Hector’s immaturity.

Another reason the film made me sad: Hector – stupid, immature, clumsy Hector – figured it out. And I haven’t. 

This is getting a bit too personal. Let’s just move on.

What I liked: Clara’s mockery of the “Ah-penis” (Read “Happiness” with an accent) lady. The use of composition, lines, and symmetry. The pops of yellow throughout the film. Ying Li’s face. Ying Li’s butt (it is an aesthetically beautiful butt). Jean Reno’s portrayal of the cynical Diego Baresco. The sick kid, Buruthi, calling Hector out for his fake “listening face.” The old African woman’s shimmy-dance. The whole scene with Jamilla, the dying woman on the plane. Chantel Herman played it beautifully (and looked badass without the wig) and I thought her part in the story, and her indirect effect on the blonde first class passenger we never really meet, was excellent. Agnes taking presumptuous Hector down a notch. The “it’s all of them” brain imaging revelation in the end.

What I didn’t like: Some of the unrealistic dialogue from the secondary “wise man” characters. Potato stew! (Really? I mean, I grew around people like this, and even I thought it was a stretch). Hector being the center of attention in the African community/family get-together (it had a “white man among the little people feel.” Yuck). Hector’s “this is why we fly first class” line and his other awkward attempts at being cool that make him seem like a douche bag. How ready he was not only to cheat on his wife, but to actually develop a relationship with Ying Li.

What is Happiness?

For Hector, happiness is being an adult, i.e. being comfortable with spontaneity, appreciating his loving girlfriend, getting married, and having kids. I personally didn’t like the “get married, have kids” message, but that is definitely a real factor for many people. The film does delve into other aspects of happiness that maybe aren’t mind-blowing, but are helpful reminders.

As the story progresses, Hector fills a notebook with drawings and a list of notes, which I’ve decided to post here because some entries on the list are potential fodder for self analysis.

  1. MAKING COMPARISONS CAN SPOIL YOUR HAPPINESS

I guess I can take a page from this piece of advice and stop being so jealous. It really is an ugly thing.      

  1. A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK HAPPINESS MEANS BEING RICHER OR MORE IMPORTANT

Maybe we need to see what areas in our life are already rich, or pursue richness in many aspects of life, rather than just wanting to be wealthy. It can definitely help, though.

  1. MANY PEOPLE ONLY SEE HAPPINESS IN THEIR FUTURE

Guilty. It particularly sucks when that future seems unattainable.

  1. HAPPINESS COULD BE THE FREEDOM TO LOVE MORE THAN ONE WOMAN AT THE SAME TIME

I felt a bit embarrassed for his naivete, and justified when the prison guards mocked him for it. Then I felt bad – don’t we all have stupid and fleeting fancies like this sometimes? And he crossed it out, which is an honest admission of his own poor judgment.

  1. SOMETIMES HAPPINESS IS NOT KNOWING THE WHOLE STORY

Is ignorance bliss? I guess. I don’t like being taken for a dummy, though.

  1. AVOIDING UNHAPPINESS IS NOT THE ROAD TO HAPPINESS

This actually spoke to me, because I am not much of a risk taker. Fear of failure inhibits progress.

  1. DOES THIS PERSON BRING YOU PREDOMINANTLY A) UP OR B) DOWN?

I may take this to the extreme. I tend to judge and drop people from my life like trees drop leaves, which leads to having very few friends.

  1. HAPPINESS IS ANSWERING YOUR CALLING.

Well, I haven’t figure out my calling, or if I even have one (or maybe I’m not being honest with myself about it, i.e. denial = no potential for risk = no potential for failure), so no comment.

  1. HAPPINESS IS BEING LOVED FOR WHO YOU ARE

You’ve got to let people close enough to get to know you. And I am not good at that.

  1. SWEET POTATO STEW!

Food is awesome and it definitely makes me happy. Too happy, probably. Of course, the greater lesson here was to revel in family, community, and celebration. I think I could be a bit more celebratory, or sincere in celebration.  

  1. FEAR IS AN IMPEDIMENT TO HAPPINESS

Story of my life.

  1. HAPPINESS IS FEELING COMPLETELY ALIVE

I’ve never had a near death experience. I’ve always been a bit too aware of my shortcomings to feel comfortable with my aliveness. I don’t think I have ever felt completely alive.

  1. HAPPINESS IS KNOWING HOW TO CELEBRATE

I don’t know how to do this. How do you do this?

  1. LISTENING IS LOVING

I am a great listener. I think more people are becoming terrible listeners and make others feel like they don’t matter. I want to throw people’s phones, sometimes. Look at me when I talk to you, fool!

  1. NOSTALIGIA IS NOT WHAT IS USED TO BE

Nostalgia is like masturbating, or giving yourself a massage. It is overrated.

*16. SADNESS, FEAR, AND JOY: HAPPINESS IS ALL OF THEM

This revelation wasn’t one of Hector’s written notes, but it was a core part of his emotional growth. I appreciated how Simon Pegg and the whole brain imaging sequence tied everything together and explained how life and its experiences aren’t singular or even binary. They are complex and carry depth of significance and emotion, if we would just be honest with ourselves about it.   

Overall, this is a film to watch once if you like Simon Pegg (which is why I watched it) or movies starring comedic actors portraying characters who go on semi-dramatic quests of self-discovery. But it’s not a gem. Some films have broached this very same topic before and maybe with better execution and more likable protagonists. However, if you are honest about your own cynicism, I think this film can get some good self-reflection going, despite the tired clichés.