Hector and the Search for Happiness Dir. Peter Chelsom

[Relativity Media; 2014]

Styles: feel-good
Others: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Simon Pegg’s talent has been wasted. So have many of the most beautiful spots in the world. And character actors — Rosamund Pike, Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette — wasted. A really A-plus camera crew. A great location scout and an even better set designer. All let down — really colossally let down — by a director and a screenwriter with all of the cohesive vision of an ad executive pitching a commercial idea to Kodak.

This was the idea (to be fair, the movie was adapted from a book): A neurotic English man’s problems — not truly understanding the gifts of having a well-respected, dynamic, high-paying job, a lovely, devoted girlfriend, an enormous apartment, comfort, health — are unloaded on a movie-magic version of The Rest of the World. Hector (Pegg), a bummed-out psychiatrist, spends what feels like an opening montage (but actually takes up 30 minutes of screen time) drifting through his comfy, downright enviable life in London before realizing that vague unease that comes, I suppose, from being too successful. He hasn’t figured out how to snap his fingers and bring his patients contentment. Figuring he needs to get out of his rut in order to learn this trick, he sets off on the kind of quest a ten year-old (or Morgan Spurlock) might think would work. He’ll canvas the globe and gather people’s answers to the question, “What makes you happy?”

Everywhere, he meets types. In China, a cynical silver-haired financier laughs at the world he’s conquered while throwing money at it and a sleek, high-class prostitute just wants a nice man to listen to her. In Africa, a sandy-haired Doctors-Without-Borders type is locked in moral battle with an unctuous French drug-dealer, while a cackling warlord plays Russian Roulette with captured tourists. And in Los Angeles, Christopher Plummer’s science researcher sticks an electronic helmet on people’s heads and shrieks “It’s everything at once!” at a computer image of a rotating rainbow-brain. It’s even less congruous than it sounds. But Hector coaxes an answer to happiness from every last one of these stereotypes and scribbles them in a notebook.

Without a recognizably human character to give heft to its ideas on happiness, Hector’s attempts at defining the emotion don’t make a whole lot of sense. Given its excellent cinematography and balls-to-the-wall use of camera and editing style (no visually distinctive filmmaker seems to have been overlooked in the ripping-off department), a shucking off of sense could have been a large asset. Alas, its aim is to use every last ounce of its considerable cinematic energy to simply try to make us feel good. The de facto message of the film, then, is that if we see the world in terms of broad stereotypes — its own include African village dance parties and long speeches from dying cancer patients — we can finally stop obsessing over the minutiae, and then we’ll be feel good.

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