Hector and the Search for Happiness

Posted on September 25, 2014 at 5:00 pm


Simon Pegg stars as Hector in this gentle fable based on the whimsical French novel by psychiatrist Francois Lelord.  Like Lelord, Hector is a psychiatrist.  He has a “tidy” life with a nice girlfriend named Clara (“Gone Girl’s” Rosamund Pike), nice patients, and a nice apartment.  But he is missing something.  He wonders if he is really helping people.  And he is not sure what he is helping them toward.  If he is not sure what happiness is, how can he guide his patients toward finding it?

Your level of happiness on viewing this film will vary depending on your tolerance for whimsy and your affection for last year’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as it is almost exactly the same movie, though not as good.

Hector decides that what he needs to do is travel around the world to learn about happiness.  Clara is troubled, and wonders what it might mean for their relationship — especially since he won’t say when he is coming back.  She wonders if “researching happiness” is just a euphemism for “finding Agnes,” the mysterious woman whose photo she found in Hector’s sock drawer (labeled “Hector’s Socks” — he is very tidy).  But she is supportive, and gives him a notebook for his discoveries, directing him to “fill these pages.”  “If you’re going to do this, do it totally,” she says. “Make it worthwhile.”

And so he sets off on a series of adventures and encounters that will teach him something about happiness.  He first meets a genial businessman named Edward (Stellan Skarsgård), who introduces him to one notion of happiness: the kind that can be bought.  Hector enjoys wine, women, and club music.  He enjoys is all so much that he conks out before he can accept the advances of a beautiful “student” (Ming Zhao).  He wonders at first whether it is possible that happiness means the freedom to love two women at the same time, and then discovers to his distress that the interest and affections of the “student” were purchased for him by Edward.  Being rich, being important, believing you are captivating to a “student” — that does not seem to be the answer.  “Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story.”

This is the point at which you are either going to go with the premise and tone or you’re not.  It’s either a fairy tale, in which the encounters are metaphors, or it is supposed to be grounded in some semblance of reality, in which case it’s solipsistic, kind of seedy and mired in stereotypes.  For me, it was a fairy tale, and so I gave it some leeway.

Hector’s travels take him to visit an old friend who runs a clinic in Africa, where he runs into a cute sick kid and a vicious but also kind of cute drug lord (Jean Reno), both of whom he helps, and also learns that his friend is gay.  He is captured by gangsters and almost killed until providentially, like a character in a fantasy game who just happened to have picked up a golden arrow and some magic beans, he has the token he needs to get out of jail if not free, at least relatively unscathed.  He meets a dying woman who is philosophical and at peace.  He meets up with Agnes (Toni Collette) and has his brain scanned by a scientist (Christopher Plummer) who is studying the biological basis for happiness.  He takes notes.  He has Skype-fights with Clara.  He learns many important lessons, and, like Dorothy Gale of Kansas, learns that the answer was inside him all along and there’s no place like home.

It is a pleasant little trifle as long as you do not take it too seriously.  If you understand that it is all inside Hector’s head, and that his adventures are more akin to The Little Prince’s planetary hops than to anything resembling reality, it has charm and even some reminders that we get more happiness from what we do for others than from what they do for us.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, scenes of criminal activity including beatings, death threats, and imprisonment, drug dealing, scenes of injured and dying characters, prostitutes, sexual situations, and nudity.

Family discussion: Which of the observations Hector wrote in his notebook do you think were most important? Why did he have to get away from home to understand what he had? Why didn’t things work out with Agnes?

If you like this, try: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

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Based on a book Comedy Drama Romance
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