REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
What is the key to happiness? It’s certainly a cogent question. Just don’t expect to find any answers in “Hector and the Search for Happiness.”
Hector (Simon Pegg) is a London-based psychiatrist. Hector’s ultra-neat, orderly apartment epitomizes his emotionally sterile life. He studiously avoids having any loose ends. His menagiste, Clara (Rosamund Pike, soon to be seen opposite Ben Affleck in “Gone Girl”) attends to every imaginable domestic detail. Pointedly, the couple have no children.
Clara is a marketer for a Big Pharma firm. Her job is to concoct snazzy names for psychotropic drugs. She is a whiz at it. An early banquet scene depicts Clara receiving an award from her boss (Vincent Gale). Clara came up with the name, “tranquilene,” for a new anti-anxiety drug. That this product may be of dubious clinical value is of no matter. It is generating huge profits for the company.
An early scene demonstrates Hector’s approach with patients. An amusing montage splices together truncated portions of Hector’s therapy sessions with a litany of his patients . His patients include Anjali, a New Age advisor, who has lost her capacity to predict the future (German actress, Veronica Ferres); a joyless couple (Dean Paul Gibson and Eileen Barrett); a Buckingham Palace guard who routinely shows up in full regalia (Michael Adamthwaite); and a globally disaffected woman (Tracy Ann Oberman). None of them demonstrates evidence of any serious psychiatric disorder. Instead, each patient is consumed with some petty issue in their otherwise comfortable life. As they cavil about their petty problems, Hector pretends to listen. Rather than take notes, he is engaged in doodling on his notepad. Any question that a patient poses is deflected by a reciprocal question by Hector.
So both Hector and Clara are making a buck out of exploiting the existential angst that pervades post-modernist, Western societies. The film fails to recognize the innate cynicism that the protagonist and his girlfriend harbor.
One day, in response to the particularly self-indulgent blathering of a patient, Hector explodes at her. This paroxysm of anger is the only time in the film that Hector shows any real emotion. Afterwards, he apologizes profusely to his patient for his blatant display of unprofessionalism.
Hector has an epiphany. As Hector explains to a colleague, Professor Neiedorf (Bernard Cuffling), he wants to discover the secret to happiness. To do so, he will travel around the world and visit third world countries. Of course, for a phlegmatic chap like Hector, this is strictly an academic issue. According to Hector, he isn’t a mere tourist, he is conducting research.
First, Hector flies to China. On the flight to the Far East, he is seated next to a dour, money-obsessed international banker, Edward (Stellan Skarsgard). Edward is thoroughly annoyed by Hector. Improbably, he insists on treating Hector as his guest at an expensive restaurant. Afterwards, Edward brings Hector to Shanghai night club. There, Hector is approached by a strikingly pretty young woman, Ying Li (Ming Zhao). Edward never questions why she has seemingly been attracted to him.
Hector departs for Tibet, where he visits a sagacious monk (Togo Igawa). A scene with Hector trekking through Tibet with a Sherpa guide is lifted, virtually shot for shot, from the Ben Stiller vehicle of last year, “Walter Mitty.”
Next, Hector heads to an unnamed, war-torn African country. He visits an old friend, Michael (Barry Atsma), a selfless doctor, who is running a free medical clinic. In a local bar, Hector meets Diego Baresco (Jean Reno), who turns out to be a ruthless drug dealer. This serendipitous encounter proves crucial to Hector staying alive.
Aboard a flight to the United States, Hector ministers to a cancer-stricken fellow passenger with a brain tumor (Chantel Herman). Before she dies, the cancer-stricken passenger wants to reunite with her sister. The pressure from the altitude is causing her excruciating pain. What can Hector do to help her?
In California, Hector reunites with an old flame, Agnes (Toni Collette). Hector is taken aback by the fact that she now has two children and is pregnant with another. Was Hector expecting Agnes to wait indefinitely for him? Agnes insists on taking Hector to meet Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer), who is doing brain research. What do these experiments reveal about the nature of happiness?
A privileged protagonist goes gallivanting around the world in pursuit of personal fulfillment. Hmm-does that premise sound familiar? Isn’t this film the male analogue of “Eat Pray Love”? Here the protagonist is supposedly conducting research, rather than writing a book.
Director, Peter Chelsom, collaborated with Maria von Heland and Peter Tinker Lindsay to adapt the book by psychiatrist, François Lelord. Unfortunately, the resulting film is trite and superficial. It purports to be a critique of white male Eurocentric privilege. Paradoxically, it ends up constituting a smug affirmation of it.
The protagonist is a clueless twit and his girlfriend is a frosty corporate functionary. Fortunately, the supporting cast, particularly Veronica Ferres, Jean Reno, Chantel Herman, and Toni Collette, help enliven an otherwise dramatically flat film.
“Hector and the Search for Happiness” is further redeemed by the cinematography by Berlin-born Kolja Brandt. He captures the intrinsic beauty of various international locations.
I would more inclined to forgive “Hector and the Search for Happiness” for recycling elements from other films if the film had something new and substantive to say. Alas, it does not.
What enables people to find happiness? Definitely, not this film.
**1/2 R (for language and some brief nudity) 117 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.