I really enjoyed "Hector and the Search for Happiness", the new film starring Simon Pegg about a psychiatrist who, due to a midlife crisis, travels to the far reaches of the globe to find out what makes people happy. Hector has quite the imagination and his fantasy frequently intrudes on the story, making it more fun and lighthearted. "Hector" is similar to Ben Stiller's recent "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", but Hector's search is funnier, more interesting and more engaging than Walter's trek around the world.
Directed by Peter Chelsom ("Town & Country", "Shall We Dance?") and co-written by Chelsom with Maria von Heland and Tinker Lindsay (both of whom are relative newcomers), "Hector and the Search for Happiness" is a look at one man's journey to find the source of his own happiness by asking what makes others happy.
Hector (Pegg), a successful London-based psychiatrist who hasn't raised his rates in years, lives a safe, very unremarkable life with his longtime girlfriend, Clara (Rosamunde Pike, "Gone Girl", "Wrath of the Titans"). As he cycles clients through his office, he suddenly snaps and realizes he has to get away. Naturally, Clara freaks out and immediately thinks he wants to break up. Hector begins the journey in China and meets banker Edward (Stellan Skarsgaard, "Thor", "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", "The Railway Man"). Edward introduces Hector to the good life; they eat well, stay in a great hotel, go to a night-club. Hector meets Ying Li (Ming Zhao) and they spend some time together before Hector makes a realization about his relationship with Ying Li. Upset, Hector heads off on the next stage of his trek, to the mountains to visit some monks. The next stop is a remote part of Africa to visit an old college friend, Michael (Barry Atsma) who works at a clinic, providing medical assistance to the local community. He also meets a prominent crime lord (Jean Reno). After having dinner with the family he met on the last leg on his plane trip, he runs into some trouble. Eventually, he moves on to Los Angeles, to visit Agnes (Toni Collette), his college sweetheart who is now happily married with 2.5 children. She arranges for Hector to visit Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer), a prominent psychiatrist who is also trying to find the source of happiness. Along the way, Hector comes to some realizations and makes some decisions about his life.
Chelsom blends many different elements to create a pretty engaging look at Hector's search. The film works best when we see various daydreamy elements - Hector as a child imagining himself flying in a biplane, his drawings and sketches coming to life - with Hector's frustrations at real life. When these moments work, you get a real look at Hector's inner feelings and this makes his character come alive. I wish these moments were more prevalent - there are a couple of narrative turns that are much too serious and don't seem to tonally match the segments born out of Hector’s imagination. Sure, many films have more lighthearted moments mixed with more dramatic moments, this is not uncommon. Unfortunately, the difference between the tones in "Hector" is a bit too much at times and this makes the experience a little lopsided and difficult to watch.
Simon Pegg is a funny guy and has created some extremely memorable comedies ("Shaun of the Dead" is a great example of the work he does with frequent collaborator Nick Frost). In "Hector", he dials it back a notch and turns in his most real performance yet. It is a pretty dramatic role and a nice change of pace.
There is a significant amount of time spent giving us a view into Hector's life, the routine, the monotony. As he sits in his office and meets with one client after another, a new client coming in as soon as the last one leaves, large crossing lights signaling when one patient leaves and another can enter the office, we quickly get a sense that Hector leads a pretty ordinary and uninteresting life. That, and the fact his girlfriend fusses over everything in his life like a mother would, show us Hector is basically sleepwalking through his life. One day, a client complains about the troubles in her life, indicating she has to cut the nanny’s days to five and this causes Hector to make the realization we already have. He can’t continue to listen to his clients’ endless complaining. He needs to do something to start living again. And that involves taking a journey. Alone.
As we meet Hector, we also see little glimpses into his active imagination - he remembers moments from his childhood, moments when he was free and dreamed of adventure. These moments give us a glimpse of what Hector is now missing and what he so desperately needs.
Rosamunde Pike is very good as Clara, the fuss-budget who seems to take great pride in making sure every detail of Hector's life is perfect, everything down to tying his bow tie every morning. She also takes great pride in her job at a large pharmaceutical company - she is in charge of coming up with names for a new medication. When Hector announces he will be taking a journey, she doesn't take the news well, but realizes it may be for the best. She reluctantly lets him go, unsure if she will be there when he returns.
Along the way, Hector meets a variety of people, some of them new to his life, others are old friends, who help him make small realizations along the way.
And along the way, he keeps a journal, taking notes about what he learns from each of these interactions. He also does drawings. The notes and drawings frequently appear on the screen and become animated elements combining with the real action, painting a pretty keen flight of fancy that fits perfectly with his character.
There are some moments in the story, particularly when Hector visits Africa, that just don't mesh with the rest of the story. These parts of the narrative are so tonally different from the rest of the film it is difficult to not feel jarred as they unspool across the silver screen. Chelsom clearly feels there should be some more dramatic moments, to make the film a little more realistic, but these go a little too far and make "Hector" a bit of a mess.
The 'guest stars' who do cameos are pretty good. Stellan Skarsgaard fares the best because Edward actually seems to have a little development. To change a little. Initially, the uptight banker, complaining because he has been relegated to Business Class on the flight to China, isn't too happy to be seated next to Hector. But they start a conversation and Edward soon decides to take Hector under his wing and show him the finer things in life. This allows Edward to lighten up a bit.
Barry Atsma plays Michael, Hector's long-lost friend who now works at a clinic in an unnamed rural, war-ravaged Africa. He is an interesting guy and has some nice character moments.
Toni Collette plays Hector's college sweetheart. Her character has the least development, but she is the final person Hector meets or reconnects with. And because she knows him so well, she is also the one person who can cut through the niceties and tell Hector what he needs to hear.
Jean Reno's drug dealer is a strange character and one of those tonal inconsistencies I was mentioning before.
"Hector and the Search for Happiness" is a fun, interesting, imperfect look at a man who once had a bigger view of the world rediscover that view as an adult.