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Hector and the Search for Happiness

September 26, 2014
Hector and the Search for Happiness

“Everybody”, a woman drunkenly exhales in a heavy pseudo-French accent, “wants happiness”. Her inflection may not be just the setup for a wincingly puerile joke, but may also serve as a reference to François Lelord, the French psychiatrist and author whose work serves as the basis for Hector and the Search for Happiness. It may work as a book — wrapping a thin story around the current (2002) state of psychological research into happiness to make it easier for lay audiences to read — but as a movie it comes off as smarmy and heavy-handed in turns.

Hector (Simon Pegg) is a psychiatrist in England who finds his life and career empty. Placating his patients keeps them coming back and speaking highly of his services, but he doesn’t feel like he’s really doing them any good. And then, of course, there’s his lackluster relationship with Clara (Rosamund Pike), because every movie has to have a romantic angle tacked on.

So Hector sets off around the world to find what makes people happy, starting in China, where he meets a rich businessman (Stellan Skarsgård) who shows him the nightlife and suggests that money does buy happiness. And Hector does have a bang-up time, even meeting a beautiful young woman (Ming Zhao). But when the money runs out, so does the fun; Hector seems to be the only one who doesn’t recognize his paramour’s profession at first sight. The Tibetan monk he visits (Togo Igawa) seems to offer a little more substantial insight, at least.

Next it’s off to Africa, where his old school chum (Barry Atsma) runs a clinic. Again, he meets a rich man (Jean Reno) who claims that money buys happiness and everyone is in it for themselves. There’s no glitzy nightlife here, though, but Hector does find the locals pretty happy despite the odd carjacking and kidnapping by the local warlords.

Finally Hector heads to America where another estranged friend (Toni Collette) — and a former lover, it seems — has her family. She’s also in a position to set Hector up with a famous happiness researcher (Christopher Plummer) who’s got a brain scan that can distinguish happiness, sadness, and fear.

This last section really lays bare the problem with the whole movie. I’m as down as anyone for a big voyage of self-discovery; I still say The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was one of last year’s better offerings. But where Walter Mitty made its thoroughly unsurprising insights feel earned, Hector falls back on literally telling us what to think. “Look!” the researcher says, “he feels happy, sad, and scared all at once!” as the lights swirl on the computer screen.

And I get it: science is really hard to make work on screen. There’s some really fascinating material coming out of neurobiology these days, and the book surely covered some of that ground. It’s one thing to read a basically-nonfiction book with a lightly fictional running story to tie it all together; making that into a narrative feature film would lead to a really dull story. But in the interest of turning the science into the story, the screenwriters have basically jettisoned the actual scientific content and only managed to get smarmy, superficial storytelling. The same emotional melange is in literally every other movie that ends with a timid hero taking a risk, but it’s more customarily depicted by having the lead actor, well, act.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test fail.

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