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A Review of "Hector and the Search for Happiness" (2014)

Hector and the Search for Happiness falls into a specific subgenre of comedy that would probably be most dismissively called "White People Comedies."  It's that specific breed that follows upper middle class folks whose lives have no real conflict, so they invent problems to keep themselves from getting bored.

That's not to say that the subgenre is inherently bad.  Almost all of Wes Anderson's films, for example, are White People Comedies, but they're thoroughly entertaining.  It's just that if you're going to make a WPC, you have to have enough respect for your audience that you'll put some effort into making your protagonists likable.

Does the titular Hector succeed at that one specific goal?  Sorta.

The movie's greatest strength is its casting.  They wisely chose Simon Pegg to play Hector, which is important since Pegg oozes charm and affability.  If they ever cast him as Hitler, then that stupid mustache will come back into style.

Another great choice was Rosamund Pike as Hector's girlfriend, Clara.  Pike is a terrific actress who always elevates her part in every movie she appears in, no matter how terrible - even her part in Doom was one of its only bright spots.  (Although I must shamefully admit that I kinda dug that first-person sequence, which makes me the only one.)  What's really ironic about her performance in Hector is that Pike is basically just doing the same Amazing Amy character she did in Gone Girl, but for comic effect.

With these two leading the charge, the worst thing you can say about the movie is that it is innocuous and occasionally entertaining.  But if you try to pretend they aren't in the film, you start to pay more attention to the actual plot and politics, and that's when it starts to get really icky.

Let's not mince words.  This is maybe 20% jokes, 20% character drama, and 60% patronizing bullshit.  Happiness is too complex a concept to boil down into witticisms, especially when they're doled out either by magical negro stereotypes or cranky rich people who can't remember the last time they had to settle.  It's impossible to buy into the movie's conclusions when you can't buy into the people reaching them.

For Christ's sake, the movie is about a guy who goes on a trip around the globe.  When's the last time you had time or money to go on a trip around your country, let alone the continent or the planet?

If it was a smarter movie, Hector would recognize the extraordinary luck its hero has and use that to its advantage.  The people he meets would be cynical about his quest, immediately frustrated, cold.  It should be a movie that confronts head-on the snobbery that has led Hector to feel unhappy in the first place. Instead, the movie sidesteps that ugliness altogether and lets Hector get by on a combination of good fortune and contrivance.  (The only one who reacts appropriately is Jean Reno, but since he's a drug dealer and his urge to punch Hector in the face is motivated purely by criminal intent, it doesn't really count.)

Alternately, the movie could be made more tolerable if Hector was a mature and nuanced character, somebody self-aware of his limitations who nevertheless wants to improve.  Hector is necessarily a flawed character since he has to be broken in order to make progress, so I can forgive his childishness to some extent.  Unfortunately, he seems to regress and get stupider and more one-dimensional as the movie goes on - even as the film tries harder and harder to convince us that there's something unique and special about his experience.

It all culminates in a truly dreadful sequence where Hector is strapped to a mind-mapping device that will flash different colors to show when he's feeling sad, scared, or happy, and all three parts of his brain light up at once when he speaks to Clara and acknowledges that he wants to marry her.  It plays out like some miraculous discovery, replete with shots of Christopher Plummer, a researcher, looking at the screen and going, "My God!  He's experiencing all three at the same time!" as if this was something nobody has ever seen before.

Really?  Nobody has ever experienced love as a whirlwind of emotions before?  Is that not the basis of all romantic storytelling in the history of man?  I must have misunderstood, I guess.

I'm sure by now it sounds like I hated this movie, but I really didn't.  I was just disappointed.  There's so much going for it that I wish it had been an actual search for happiness. Instead, it's like looking up happiness in the dictionary.

My Rating: 3 / 5

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