Hector and the Search for Happiness includes laughs and relatable drama but struggles to find successful balance between engaging journeys and thought-provoking destinations.
In Hector and the Search for Happiness, Simon Pegg plays the titular character - a psychiatrist who comes to realize that his patterned and sterile life has not equipped him to advise others on improving their mental health. Inexperienced with the outside world, Hector decides the only way to help his patients (and himself) is to travel around the world on a journey of self-discovery - in the hopes of finding the keys to happiness.
However, in order to put his daily routine behind him and venture out into the world, Hector must leave behind his loving girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike), who isn't quite prepared for just how far her partner will go in his quest. It's a quest that will take Hector around the globe and face-to-face with monks, rich business men, psychology experts, and friends from his own past - who all have their own stories to tell and versions of happiness to share.
Directed by Peter Chelsom (Serendipity), Hector and the Search for Happiness is based on the 2002 novel, Le voyage d'Hector ou la recherche du bonheur from french author and psychiatrist François Lelord. Much like the book, the film aims to be a light-hearted and uplifting story of self-discovery - rather than a dry and academic look at the psychology of human happiness. At times, Chelsom's film simply tries to do too much: walk a fine line between heart-warming drama and authentic human struggle - all while imparting bite-sized lessons as Hector tries to sum up his experiences.
To that end the film works as an uplifting tale with a likable lead character and an interesting variety of supporting players. Still, for viewers who have seen stories of repressed protagonists journeying out into the world to find enlightenment, Hector and the Search for Happiness isn't a particularly fresh take on the premise. It's an enjoyable and occasionally thought-provoking film but does little to differentiate itself from an otherwise familiar format.
It's a clean premise: a man that attempts to counsel people on happiness and breaking out of unhealthy cycles - even though he is also stuck in a rut, incapable of finding (or embracing) happiness in his own life. Nevertheless, in spite of some insightful interactions, as well as one downright terrifying encounter, Hector and the Search for Happiness is too clean - especially for a film about the messiness of life. Side characters range from on-the-nose examples of lessons to be learned to subtle opportunities for rumination on human happiness and the many ways it can manifest. As a result, the story (and Hector as a character) is mostly navigating a series of isolated plot points, and subsequent life-lessons, without building to anything particularly profound or all that moving. Hector grows in his journey - but it's unlikely that many audiences members will be particularly impacted or inspired by what he learns along the way.
To his credit, Pegg is solid as Hector - conveying a range of emotions befitting of a man that is thrust into varied situations with an equally diverse range of international characters. While many viewers are likely well-familiar with Pegg's quirky comedy roles, his work in Hector and the Search for Happiness requires both a vulnerability and sensitivity that should win-over some skeptics - even if the performance isn't notable enough for awards season attention. Of course, that's not to say that Pegg is too serious either - Chelsom also provides many oddball moments that take advantage of the actor's comedy repertoire.
Supporting players are equally strong - with a fun set of brief but still intriguing appearances from Jean Reno, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgård, and Christopher Plummer, among other notable names. Most of the more familiar actors are playing within type-casting (Skarsgård is a rich businessman and Reno is a short-tempered drug mogul) but a few lesser-known performers, Ming Zhao and Chantel Herman, especially are responsible for some of the film (and Hector's) most penetrative moments.
Lastly, Pike does her best as Clara - though Chelsom does a poor job of providing the character definition beyond her relationship with Hector. Clara is successful and well-liked, but amidst a flurry of captivating worldly encounters, the movie simply does not develop her beyond a cog in the larger story - embodying the safe life that Hector has created back home. In the opening moments, the film presents Clara as full of life, beautiful and caring, but once Hector adventures away, she is quickly confined to a vague outline - either as a clingy and desperate enabler or an under-appreciated victim of the titular character's lack of life experience. Given Pike's previous work, it's hard to imagine that, at least on the original script page, Clara was ever meant to be as bland as the rest of Hector's life.
Hector and the Search for Happiness checks every box necessary for a solid story of self-empowerment: the performances are strong, the characters are interesting, and the film presents some worthwhile commentary on where we each find happiness in life. Yet, in spite of its strengths, Chelsom's film lacks the invention and risk-taking necessary to differentiate Hector's story from similar tales that preceded it. In the end, Hector and the Search for Happiness includes laughs and relatable drama but struggles to find successful balance between engaging journeys and thought-provoking destinations.
Hector and the Search for Happiness runs 120 minutes and is Rated R for language and some brief nudity.
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