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26 September 2014

Movie Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness


I have never laughed harder at a trailer than I did for Hector and the Search for Happiness. The trailer popped up before Boyhood at the movie theater, and I immediately knew I had to see it. Come on, that China gong/platter bit? At first I was all, "....are they really doing this...?" then I could not stop cracking up when I realized what had happened.

Undeterred by its mediocre-to-bad reviews from its UK release that resulted in a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, we headed to the movie theater on Saturday afternoon. There's no way that movie could be that bad from such a funny trailer. Granted, with a logline like this, it is pretty easy to stray into Clicheland - specifically in the Eat, Pray, Love neighborhood (which, for the record, I don't hate). The premise of the movie, based on a French book, is that Hector (the amazing Simon Pegg, who gets to show some of his dramatic acting chops) leads a ho-hum life as a psychiatrist in London with his gorgeous girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike). One day he realizes he's not actually helping his patients or contributing anything to their lives, and sets out to 'find out what makes people happy' by traveling around the world. Perhaps a particularly relevant subject matter for me as I'm in a minor quarter life crisis at the moment, but that's a topic for another day.

And I would, indeed, be more generous than a review aggregator for this movie, and score in the 65% range. It's not completely life-changing in the, "oh my god, I have to go to volunteer at a medical clinic in Africa" way, but it was a nice way to spend an afternoon. It got a few laughs out of me, and even almost some tears - two pretty uncommon reactions from me.

The movie benefits from a great cast with the likes of Stellan Skarsgard, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer, and the inherent visual interest of a hand full of exotic locales like Shanghai, Tibet, and Africa. Two of the standout scenes both took place on planes. The first is when Hector first meets Stellan Skarsgard's character (I am a big fan of the Skarsgard family), a filthy rich banker named Edward. The second is when Hector helps a terminal cancer patient become more comfortable on her last plane ride. The 'China gong moment', as I've dubbed it, unfortunately works a lot better in the trailer, but maybe it was because I was already expecting it.

Hector gets bogged down at some crucial moments in its heavy-handedness though. His realization that his young Chinese lady companion was actually a prostitute was so disappointingly overdone. Did she really need to be dragged away kicking and screaming by her pimp? Skipping ahead to the ending, another way overdone scene is when Hector is on the phone with Clara while Christopher Plummer and Toni Collette are observing his emotions on the brain monitor thing. It kind of felt like the director figured he had two great actors in the room so he should just give them a couple more lines to shout out, even though they were completely unnecessary. Overall I feel like the film, and especially moments like these, could have used a more gentle narrative touch. You don't always need to spell everything out for the audience - especially in a movie all about introspection and self-discovery. Hector also is constantly asking all of his new friends what makes them happy, in just about as many words, and while the movie does try to back up the statements, I wish he didn't literally have to pull out his notebook and say, "So, what makes you happy?" to everyone. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels plugged in, like he's filling out a school assignment.

One device Hector could have made more use of was the illustrations. I personally love little narrative tools like this sprinkled in once in a while. In the first third of the movie, the audience is treated to little animations of the doodles that Hector draws in his notebook, as well as handwritten notes on his observations/learnings about happiness. The illustrations mostly disappear as we get into the meat of the film, but I think using them more with an editorial touch would have enhanced the whimsical and slightly dreamy qualities of the film, and showed us Hector's unique perspective more artfully.

In sum, please don't be put off by the low ratings and do check out Hector and the Search for Happiness, especially if you're into travel, or even just the idea of travel. It's a nice film and will certainly get you itching to pack your bags for a big adventure.

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