Sometimes a good book, simply told, doesn’t work on film. Hector and the Search for Happiness was an extremely successful first novel for French psychiatrist, Francois Lelord. He cleverly wrote a psychology book and aimed it at those who ordinarily wouldn’t read such things. He made it episodic, turned it into an adventure and added advice to make you think along the way. It was psychiatric help for those who never knew they were looking for it, or medicine disguised as candy.
In the movie version, a pleasant though droll voice-over introduces us to London psychiatrist, Hector (Simon Pegg) in the way you would begin a fairy story. “His world was tidy, uncomplicated,” we’re told, “And he liked it that way.” Everyday, Hector does the same thing. He gets up, dresses the same way, crosses the same Millennium Footbridge at the same time across the River Thames from the north to the south side, and listens to the same revolving patients with what sounds like the same, largely inconsequential problems. “Hector’s rates had not changed in years,” the voice-over continues, “And neither had Hector.”
But change was about to come. When one of Hector’s patients whines she’ll have to cut the nanny down to only five days a week and adds, “I’m at the end of my rope,” Hector suddenly cracks. Enough is enough, he thinks. There has to be more, and so in an uncharacteristic moment of inspiration, Hector decides to take time off, put his patients on hold and travel the world in search of the answer to that immortal question, what makes people happy?
Armed with only a backpack, lots of Velcro pockets on his shirt and an empty notebook given to him by his longtime girlfriend with a few neurotic issues of her own, Clara (Rosamund Pike), Hector sets off. First stop, China.
What follows is a series of adventures punctuated by a numbered list of single sentences that write across the screen at the moment when Hector learns a new life lesson, as in 1) Making comparisons can spoil your happiness, or 2) Many people only see happiness in the future. They’re the kind of recaps that turn up at the conclusion of each chapter in a Happiness for Dummies type publication. When Hector suddenly finds he’s attracted to a woman he’s just met while reflecting on his relationship with Clara waiting for him back home in London, he writes reflectively, Happiness could be the freedom to love 2 women at the same time. That last one must be from the French inspired version of Chicken Soup for the Philandering Soul.
Hector and the Search for Happiness, a title that doesn’t exactly roll easily off the tongue, is ultimately a whimsical and somewhat likable exercise in pop psychology that only occasionally entertains, depending on what adventure Hector is currently engaged in. After all, what follower of film would pass up the chance to see Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Toni Collette, Rosamund Pike and Christopher Plummer all in the same movie? Plus, and more importantly, who doesn’t like Simon Pegg?
Given the locations such as China, Africa and Los Angeles, it’s hardly surprising that the wide screen cinematography by Kilja Brandt is eye-catching and occasionally even spectacular, but, under director and co-writer Peter Chelsom’s guidance, lessons learned are generally obvious and could hardly be considered thoughtful insights in the way you might read something that causes you to pause and reflect and maybe even change your way of thinking. Film can certainly do that, but not this one.
And one last point that illustrates the difference between the written word that inspires images in the mind and a film that does the work for you: If you knew Rosamund Pike was waiting for you back at your London home, would you leave?
MPAA Rating: R Length: 114 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)