A crap film doesn't necessarily follow from a crap premise; the commitment of a cast or a director can go a long way toward rectifying a course mis-set or mis-handled by the writer. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Brit Peter Chelsom's screen version of French psychiatrist François Lelord's self-help pop-psychology best-seller.
Hector and the Search for Happiness is one of those cases of an entirely misguided, tone-deaf production where even the best efforts of all involved are unable to save it from disaster - even though there's an intriguing playfulness in the film's premise as laid out in a curious opening stretch. Utterly bland, non-descript London psychiatrist Hector (Simon Pegg) has a perfectly ordered, laid-out life in front of him, with the perfect job, the perfect flat, the perfect wife (a note-perfect Rosamund Pike). It's all so perfect, in fact, he reaches some sort of (ever so proper) nervous breakdown, and self-medicates by going on a trip around the world to distill the essence of what makes people happy.
What follows, sadly, is a mystifyingly interminable and incredibly clueless succession of episodes trading on all sorts of cultural stereotypes, as the well-meaning Hector, a sort of modern Candide traveling in first class and always able to make the most of even the most frightful experiences, is waylaid through Asia, Africa and America. None of this is the fault of the immensely likeable Mr. Pegg, a truly talented and sympathetic comedian whose commitment to Hector's bungling Britishness is irrepressible. In fact, his performance is one of the very few reasons to sit through this ragged, endless collection of uninspired self-help platitudes, handsomely shot on location by Kolja Brandt but so anonymously handled that it seems to be merely a film designed by commitee to hit as many offensive stereotypes as possible.
Mr. Chelsom seems to be totally unable to hit the correct tone of whimsy such a fable would require to work; his deliberate reliance on a realist tone highlights the chasm between the airbrushed grittiness of the real world and the airheaded bubble of clueless, blind privilege Hector lives in. Cloying when it should be poignant, heavy-handed when it should be subtle, signposting from a distance with a thick black marker every single "uplifting" moment, Hector and the Search for Happiness fails to follow its very own pop psychology advice: it's not about the destination, it's about the journey. The journey, though, is a pain.
HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS
Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates 2014
Cast Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, Rosamund Pike, Stellan Skarsgård, Jean Reno, Veronica Ferres, Barry Atsma, Ming Zhao, Togo Igawa, Christopher Plummer
Director Peter Chelsom; screenwriters Maria von Heland, Mr. Chelsom and Tinker Lindsay; based on the novel Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord; cinematographer Kolja Brandt (colour, widescreen); composers Dan Mangan and Jesse Zubot; designer Michael Diner; costumes Guy Speranza; editor Claus Wehlisch; producers Judy Tossell, Klaus Dohle, Christine Haebler, Trish Dolman, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross and Christian Angermayer; production companies Egoli Tossell Film, Erfttal Film- und Fernsehproduktion and Screen Siren Pictures in co-production with Wild Bunch Germany and Construction Film, in association with Head Gear Films, Star Gate Films, Metrol Technology, Film House Germany, ARD-Degeto, Movie Central and The Movie Network
Screened February 20th 2015, Lisbon