'Hector and the Search for Happiness': Film Review
Simon Pegg stars opposite Rosamund Pike as a psychiatrist searching for the meaning of life in this adaptation of Francois Lelord’s best-selling novel
In the British comedy-drama Hector and the Search for Happiness, Simon Pegg plays a London-based psychiatrist who has a mini nervous breakdown, puts his relationship with his girlfriend (Rosamund Pike) on hold and sets off round the world to find the secret to happiness. Along the way, he makes new friends, meets up with old ones and has various adventures, all the while writing down his aphoristic insights — for example, “Listening is loving” — in a notebook. The film manages, impressively, to be both crushingly banal and offensive in its use of cultural stereotypes. Watching it is like being brutally violated by a greeting card. Pegg’s profile, and that of Pike once Gone Girl gets going, should ensure moderate interest from audiences, but it’s unlikely to bring much box-office joy to its distributors.
The film’s director is Peter Chelsom, a one-time actor who years ago directed the charming Hear My Song (1991) and the cult black comedy Funny Bones (1995), but whose most recent feature credit is Hannah Montana: The Movie. He takes a co-screenwriting credit here with German writer-director Maria von Heland (Big Girls Don’t Cry) and Tinker Lindsay (creative consultant on Hannah Montana), the three joining forces to adapt Francois Lelord’s best-selling novel: an irritating mashup of faux-naif narration and self-help pop thought that arguably deserves to be made into a film as bad as this.
Nevertheless, even in Lelord’s twee original the title character isn’t the bumbling disgrace to the psychiatric profession that he becomes in this adaptation. In the first 20 minutes, he takes to screaming at his patients for worrying about petty things like their broken marriages and depression when there are people suffering elsewhere in the world.
This attempt to scale the moral high ground is a bit rich coming from a movie in which the protagonist sets off for an insultingly non-specific land called “Africa," where folk are either jolly and poor or gun-toting thugs (and poor) and there are a few lions about. The characters in China, where Hector journeys before his African sojourn, have fractionally more dimensionality. At least one or two have names, but given the fact that out of the four characters with dialogue, one is a tart-with-a-heart prostitute and the other’s her violent pimp, it’s not a massive improvement.
In truth, the script is an equal-opportunities offender, rendering characters from all over the globe with the same crassness of execution. That even goes for the hero, a self-absorbed twit whom Pegg fails to imbue with much charm, even if it’s refreshing to see him trying to extend his dramatic range here.
If the film has any saving graces, it’s the leading women. Pike and Toni Collette are both frequently cited as redeeming features in poor films, and history repeats itself in Hector. Projecting barely suppressed rage that racks up by notches throughout, Pike’s Clara becomes a mirror for the audience’s own frustration with the protagonist and his platitude-filled quest. Ditto for Collette’s Agnes, an old flame of Hector’s, who rips into his delusions with delicious ruthlessness in the movie’s climactic scene.
Technically, the proceedings are adequate, relying heavily on the naturally photogenic qualities of locations like Shanghai, the African veldt and some mountains meant to be the Himalayas. With all that globe-trotting, along with the use of fey devices (flashbacks to childhood, use of child actors, bits of simplified animation), to suggest Hector’s inner thoughts, the whole thing starts to be reminiscent of last year’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but with less budget and a much worse script — and that’s really saying something.
Production companies: A Bankside Films presentation of a Egoli Tossell, Film Afrika Worldwide, Construction Film Erfttal Film, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Screen Siren Pictures, Wild Bunch Germany production
Cast: Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno, Christopher Plummer, Ming Zhao
Director: Peter Chelsom
Screenwriters: Maria von Heland, Peter Chelsom, Tinker Lindsay, based on a novel by Francois Lelord
Producers: Klaus Dohle, Trish Dolman, Christine Haebler, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Judy Tossell
Executive producers: Christine Angermayer, Klemens Hallmann, Marc Hansell, Jens Meurer, Elliot Ross, Fenella Ross,
Director of photography: Kolja Brandt
Production designer: Michael Diner
Costume designer: Guy Speranza
Editor: Claus Wehlisch
Music: Dan Mangan, Jesse Zubot
Sales: Bankside Films
15 rating (U.K.), 120 minutes