The victim of venomous reviews at the Toronto International
Film Festival, Hector and the Search for
Happiness deserves a break. It’s a sweet, un-cynical fable with a lovely
performance by Simon Pegg, a perfectly-cast everyman who runs a rich emotional
gamut over the course of the story. Based on a French novel, Hector is the story of a childlike man
who’s never really grown up, even though he works in a very grown-up
profession, namely psychiatry. Bored with his patients in London and
increasingly aware that his relationship with his devoted girlfriend (Rosamund
Pike) is stagnant, he decides to take a trip around the world to learn what
makes people happy.
Director/co-screenwriter Peter Chelsom uses animation and clever
graphic devices to add a whimsical note to the narrative as Hector travels to
China, Tibet, Africa, and Los Angeles, encountering all sorts of people and
naively asking even the worst of them what makes them happy. He may be
unworldly (to put it mildly) but he isn’t stupid, and he uses his wits to get
himself out of several dangerous jams. He also manages to spread a little of
his childlike sense of wonder to some of the jaded, even sordid, men he meets.
You can call this simplistic if you like, but I found myself
caught up in the spirit of the film, which is not meant to be taken literally.
The characters played by Stellan Skarsgård (a wealthy man who takes Hector out
for a good time in Shanghai), Jean Reno (a scummy drug dealer in Africa),
Christopher Plummer (a professor researching emotions in the human brain), and
Barry Atsma (a selfless doctor working in Africa) are archetypes and intended
as such. Only Toni Collette’s character feels shallow and underwritten: she’s
an old girlfriend of Hector’s that he never properly pursued and maintains as a
fantasy in his memory book.
Pegg pulls off the considerable feat of making Hector a
believable character, in the context of this fable. By the end of his eventful
journey, when his emotions pour out uncontrollably, we can feel his pain as
well as his catharsis.
Well shot by German cinematographer Kolja Brandt on a
variety of locations around the globe, Hector
also features a colorful score by Dan Mangan and Jesse Zubot. I’ve long admired
director Peter Chelsom’s early work (Hear
My Song, The Mighty, Funny Bones) and welcome his return to personal
filmmaking. I only hope audiences take the opportunity to discover Hector and the Search for Happiness.