Review of Hector and the Search for Happiness
Reviewed by Royce Grubic
Teeth Without Teeth: Hector and the Search for Happiness
Whether fending off ravenous zombies in Shaun of the Dead, murderous pagan Townie creeps in Hot Fuzz, or the android body snatchers in The World’s End, it seems like the witty and nerdy-cool Simon Pegg has an axe to grind with the middle class. Nothing is as it seems in these quaint English towns. Something always upsets the pristine and boring apple cart.
In the case of 2014’s Hector and the Search for Happiness, Pegg’s character himself flips it over. The plot of the film is very similar to the recent The Secret life of Walter Mitty remake with Ben Stiller: scrawny bland middle-aged white guy living a life of quiet desperation is shaken out of his humdrum life, compelled to head off on an exciting adventure—to the edge of joy and of death where lies cathartic abandon—in what in truth is a quest to find himself. A Tintin wanna-be and model plane hobbyist, Hector would fly, and explore, create, and truly love, if only . . .? He himself does not know the answer, or is afraid of it.
To make it more interesting, Hector is a psychiatrist, so happiness at least theoretically falls under his professional purview. He has become disengaged with his patients and their affluent “problems”—and understandably so. Wound tight in his buttoned cardigan, he doodles while they drone on, spinning wheels in the comforts of the office without making any progress, their voices bleeding together. Hector’s rates have not changed for years, and neither has he.
Unlike Mitty, Hector is in a romantic relationship, with an advertising/marketing agent named Clara, played by the ever-lovely but an overly smiley Rosamund Pike (the gone girl in Gone Girl). Her pearly whites are blinding and on full display in nearly every scene. Pike is cute but is trying too hard to be so as she forcibly musters a Meg Ryan-esque Rom-Com energy. Their relationship is described more than once as uncomplicated, controlled, predictable, sterile, “tidy.” “Promise me you’ll never change,” Clara says to him after lovemaking; it’s their “agreement.” They are an attractive couple and seem perfect and happy on the surface, but something is missing. She’s not ready to be a mother and he is not ready to be a husband. One of Hector’s patients, a psychic having troubles with her aura detection skills, calls Hector out on his “non-committal nonsense” and general inauthenticity (or as is said later, “these are not the emotions of a grown man”). He is just going through the motions.
Hector is not the milquetoast that Mitty is, but he clearly needs to rediscover his voice and soul, under the guise of researching the true meaning of happiness. It doesn’t hurt there is an unresolved ex-flame out there (Toni Collette in an insipid performance as an American blonde in Los Angeles) and a past he has not yet filed away.
Prodded by the psychic, Hector snaps. To a patient claiming to be at the end of her rope, he screams at her to cut the rope. He puts his practice and relationship on hold, apparently to try to live up to his heroic name. It is not clear if Clara will still be there if/when he returns. It is sad—and maybe even sexist—to see her left behind while he goes on this philosophical quest.
Mitty heads to Iceland and the Himalayas; Hector in his cartoonish travel gear hits Shanghai, what seems to be Tibet, Africa (a fine place to cathartically dance in that joy/death moshpit), and Los Angeles. Partly due to his inability to return borrowed pens, Hector makes friends with all sorts: white, black, Asian, rich, poor, naked, clothed, saints, assholes. On the plane to China he very slowly and awkwardly befriends a wealthy and extremely grumpy businessman (Stellan Skaarsgaard). Skaarsgaard’s Edward is the epitome of the self-centered rich douchebag. Upon learning of Hector’s project, Edward assertively scoffs, “Let me show you happy.” In short, it involves luxury hotels, lavish meals and clothes, a ritzy nightclub and what turns out to be a high-priced escort. To whomever said money can’t buy happiness, Edward memorably says, “Fuck you.” He has no time for such musings; he has millions to make. “Just keep moving” is his motto. Predictably, for Hector the alluring hedonistic glitz proves empty and harshly disappointing the morning after; the willful ignorance of the partying life is not bliss, and so the search continues.
Leaving the city behind, Hector’s next stop is the mountains, ever the symbol of being serenely above the fray of worldly hustle and bustle. There is wisdom and contentment out there in them thar hills somewhere, usually represented by free-flowing Buddhist prayer flags and maybe a few giggling Buddhist monks to offer guidance and a living embodiment of contentment. Cold thin air does allow for purifying breaths. Of course, even the remote monastery that Hector visits must have a satellite dish and skype, probably to not alienate Westerners viewers averse to imagining even a single day without any gadgets. From the abbot, who claims to be happy because he’s been through so much in life, Hector learns the Buddhist insight that avoiding unhappiness is not the same as happiness. He can run but he can’t hide. He must dive into life.
Moving on to third world Africa, Hector through his encounters there wonders if happiness is a matter of just focusing on self-interest or even one’s own family, the world be damned. The answer instead seems to be clarity and public service: he encounters joy in the form of rediscovering his calling as a physician on the frontlines of abject poverty; he gets to act like a real doctor instead of just dealing with the whining of middle class neurotics. He is welcomed to an extended family dinner (more of an exuberant community pot luck) by some of the locals. Good food, good company, and soon after he discovers the simple pleasure of surviving in an incredibly dangerous environment. Under torture, Hector admits that he is not researching what makes people happy, but rather if he himself can be happy. The gunman says with scorn, “If you want it, you take it.” Once freed, Hector is finally able to dance and to celebrate life. Having a gun pointed at one’s head is often a true peak experience, although as Dostoevsky commented in The Idiot, even after a reprieve from a death sentence, no matter what we tell ourselves, it is impossible to live savoring every moment.
Via video chat, Clara bitches out Hector for being out of touch and because she is not part of “his project.” It’s a true downer for the previously giddy Hector but a realistic one. The message at this point in the film regarding relationships is of rationality: Does this person bring you predominantly up or down? Hector is not yet able to answer one way or the other regarding Clara. Monogamy seems like a cop-out to the adventurer on a quest. But for all its romantic appeal, the road isn’t a place for a sane person to stay forever. Friends are fleeting, relationships are quickies or non-existent, the food consists mostly of greasy spoons. There is no home, no hearth. Committing to the hobo drama is not really for adults, at least not ones that want to hold onto their sanity. Another way of putting it, to paraphrase the thesis of Denis de Rougement’s Love in the Western World and even a recent novel/film like High Fidelity, is that we can’t live in passion forever. One must settle down unless the plan is to go out quickly in flames.
The final half-hour of the film features the ancient Christopher Plummer hamming it up as Professor Coreman, the “Einstein of Happiness,” a neuroscientist studying the emotional “colors” produced by the brain. He echoes the Buddhist monk’s view that happiness is not a lasting state of being, but rather a becoming to be found in the pursuit itself, not some imagined end state.
The climax of the film finds Hector, hooked up to Coreman’s brain mapping machines, in a blubbering phone call with Clara, where he is sad, scared, happy all at once—as an “aurora borealis” of dancing emotional light appears on the MRI screens. Hector is finally decisive and ready to embrace adult love, work, play, and the randomness of life with childlike heartfulness. It’s the order of chaos, a living order, instead of the stale routine with which the story began. For all the miles, mountains, dancing, prayer flags, it turns out the answer is just back home, as it was with Walter Mitty. By this time, though, near the two hour mark, the cheesiness has gone tilt on the cheese-o-meter, and the audience isn’t exactly rooting for Hector and Clara. I kind of wanted to see them hit by a double-decker bus.
Like any film of its ilk, Hector and the Search for Happiness strives to fill our minds with corny self-help maxims, such as “this is your next life,” “those afraid of death are afraid of life,” “listening is loving,” and that we have an obligation to be happy. We can start to appreciate why the cynical Edward might say fuck you in response to all this. But the globe-trekking search for a legitimate, respectable, enduring happiness is not merely a preoccupation of the post-New Age world but also big business, not just for men but also for women in drivel like Eat Pray Love or whatever is going on with those exotic Marigold Hotels. So what is happiness? Is it carnal pleasure and the decadent delights that come with wealth? Uh, it’s a safe bet that won’t be the answer. Being alone? Running from commitment and duty? Hmm. I am guessing not, since the weird loners tend to find themselves in cabins out in the woods and not in movie theaters or sitting in front of HDTVs. I am still waiting for the film that tells us we have an obligation to be decent human beings, not just dutiful consumers at peace with our purchases. But I suppose if filmgoers become too concerned with moral improvement and not just spiritual “tourism,” they probably won’t spend $8 for a giant soda.
It is worth mentioning that the story of Hector and his search is interspersed with delightful nice animated touches that allow for entertaining little breathers for the viewers. Perhaps this creative interplay of fantasy and reality is the truest illustration of happiness, and not Clara’s bleached smile.