TIFF 2014 Review: ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’

hector and the search for happiness simon pegg

Like clockwork, this year’s entry into the travel-’round-the-world-only-to-find-that-what-you-needed-was-in-front-of-you-all-along movie has arrived. And damn if it doesn’t have a great cast: Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno and Christopher Plummer. Yes, look at that cast again! “What’s the title of the movie that brought all these thespians together?” You ask, handing reaching for your wallet. Hector and the Search for Happiness. Hand pauses, wallet half-exposed. What a clunky title. Is it as hokey as it sounds? Yes and no. It’s pleasant, it’s light, but it’s also simple. occasionally insensitive and occasionally cringe-worthy.

Hector (Pegg) is a psychiatrist in a rut. He has a girlfriend Clara (Pike), who ties his ties for him, makes his breakfast and is really into the whole daily-routine thing. He thinks all of his patients have first world problems. So he decides that what he really needs to do is travel around the globe to see what makes people happy. It’s research. The results he finds are about as enlightening as typing “what makes people happy?” into Google

Hector’s first stop is in Hong Kong. He’s a bumbling buffoon in a foppish hat and cargo pants in first class. (Oh, Hector.) Which, of course, makes him a curiosity to a mega-millionaire banker (Skarsgard) who shows him the happiness that money can buy: first class hotels, first-rate food, skipping lines to clubs, and skipping flirtation to nighttime companionship. One day in and a Chinese student (Ming Zhao) already has him thinking of loving two women. Money, however, does not seem to bring happiness. But first class was fun. And Hector got to meet some monks that want to be Skype pals.

His next stop is in Africa. That’s right, that big, giant continent that has one culture and language from top to bottom: Africa. Movies, please, stop just saying Africa as a destination. Tell us the country. Put in a little effort. Look into the diversity of the regions. There he visits an old chum (Chad Willett) who’s doing relief work in Africa. Also in Africa — who knows which part! — Hector assists a man (Reno) who turns out to be a drug dealer. What does he learn about happiness in Africa? Oh, that surviving it is nice. Moving on!

Los Angeles is next. And there’s only two names left from that cast-list above, so you know he meets Collette and Plummer. There’s a scene with Pegg in a brain activity cap, with Plummer at the controls, Collette is monitoring and Pike is a voice that’s transmitted in. My God! Can we please get that group and that sensory cap together for some weird sci-fi? Maybe an Altered States reboot?

Simon Pegg and Rosemund Pike in Hector and the Search for Happiness: drowning in 'cornball truisms'.

And that’s where Hector goes. Now, what it does well is some small scenes where asking someone what makes them happy isn’t the dialogue. There’s a scene on an airplane where Hector talks to a woman who’s desperately trying to make it to Los Angeles while her brain tumor is swelling from the cabin pressure. And Pegg appropriately listens. There’s a dream sequence with a dog falling from the sky. There’s plane turbulence re-enacted on a model airplane inside a diorama. And there’s a really, really happy Christopher Plummer. And, although its cloying, Hector does try to be adult: there’s some screaming at patients and naming of pharmaceutical drugs for erectile disfunction.

But Hector also sidelines Pike in an awful way. Her character is presented as a controlling beauty who suffocates Hector with her mommy-ing. Of course he’d need a break from that! And even though Hector very quickly cheats on Clara, I guess we’re supposed to feel that its wrong that she’s going out in a sexy black dress while Hector’s away. And, goodness, its totally unacceptable that she’s unhappy that Hector is visiting a long-loved ex in Los Angeles. The formidable actress has nothing to do other than tie his tie, put toast in his mouth and feel bad about not being able to get pregnant. 

Stylistically, there’s an awful repetition of lessons from Hector’s growing handbook to happiness that are written across the screen as if we’re supposed to be taking notes. Find out that the woman you found appealing the night before was actually a prostitute and her pimp is upset that you didn’t pay for two days? Well, clearly, “happiness is not knowing the whole story.” Isn’t that the epitome of a first world problem, Hector? Being oblivious to other people’s struggle while thinking only of your immediate benefit?

Let’s take this exact cast and put them to work doing something else. That’d make me happy.

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Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.