Hector and the Search for Happiness is a comedy about a psychiatrist who is burned out and unhappy. He decides to travel the world in search for happiness, only to find out that what he searches for is inside himself.
Simon Pegg stars in this film, a comedy based on a French book that echoes many of the themes found in other recent movies. Hector and the Search for Happiness (I guess I should call it HatSH from here onwards) is a funny travelogue about a man who wants to make changes to his life. The movie has a lightness and levity that reminds one of The 100-Year-Old Man Who etc. (2013), but while that man was simply a bit strange in the head, Hector is simply tired. He is a simple man who seems to have everything under control, especially as a psychiatrist surrounded by troubled people. A pillar of stability, what turns out to be just veneer. It also echoes the Ben Stiller movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), a movie about an office clerk who starts travelling to inject adventure into his life.
HatSH is visually appealing. It has little montages of Hector’s predictable, repetitious life and voice overs by Simon Pegg. As he flies, he remembers his childhood fascination with flying and the movie shows it by putting Hector in drawings of the airplane. Because of the movie’s small budget, it is well grounded in reality, like showing airport scenes and street scenes in other countries.
He meets people and asks them whether they are happy. No-one has a good answer. His travel adventures make him happy, sort of. He goes wild. He learns lessons. The films covers quite a lot of ground, not only geographically but also mentally. Hector notes all the lessons he learns and we see the notes appear on the bottom of the screen.
Travel and happiness are so often equated in our culture. The “searching for yourself” in some Asian country has become a cliché. Whether travel has anything to show you depends totally on yourself. Some have a great time and get unhappy again once they are home. Others had a difficult time abroad but look back with happiness on those memories. Hector and the Search for Happiness isn’t blind to this cliché but tries to incorporate it. Hector stays unhappy while travelling and keeps on searching because his state of mind hasn’t changed. In this, HatSH is more intelligent than for example The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Although experiences while travelling can change your life, it is foolishness to hope and expect that to happen, because while you are monitoring your emotional state for anything important while travelling, you’ll find that it is easy to be blasé about most experiences. Yet this is the myth that movies and stories like Walter Mitty hold up for us. The myth that taking a gap year will give you happiness for the rest of your life. I am glad to see that HatSH tries to move beyond that.
Halfway around the movie, though, the story moves into unusual territory and Hector gets kidnapped. Now, this just isn’t fair. If you were watching hoping to learn the secret to happiness and the movie gives you examples that you cannot copy in your own life, that isn’t fair at all. I mean you can get kidnapped in real life if you want to, but no happy ending is guaranteed. But now I am not exactly fair to the movie though. Everyone can have life changing experiences. Foolishness would be to try to find it in a movie.
The question with movies that try to give a message is always: is the third act any good? Will the message devolve into something bland? There is a visit to a professor that is really too easy for the story, but Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike offer some really good acting here. It is actually quite touching. As you can see, the movie makes me think a lot. It is actually quite a good movie. It is entertaining, it is heartfelt and intellectually stimulating. What more do we want?