There is not a cynical or mean-spirited moment in Peter Chelsom's new film "Hector and the Search For Happiness," and the film's observations about life are in some ways so direct, so fundamental, that it would be easy to shrug it off and laugh at its sincerity.
Happiness is a subject I've been thinking about quite a bit this year. At 44, I find it elusive, temporary. I've upended my life this year, moving out of my house, negotiating a divorce, building a new life to share with my kids, and even exploring the notion of new love, and all of it has been life-altering and shattering and scary and exhilarating, and above all else, necessary. Completely and totally necessary.
When I was a young man, I saw happiness as something that landed on you, something that was simply a by-product of living life. I took happiness for granted, and I am well aware now as an older man that happiness is something you have to actively work towards, that you cannot expect it to simply land on you. I have had my fair share of luck over the years, moments of joy that were simply delivered to me, but for the most part, I've had to struggle for the happiness I've had, and I have learned to cherish it when it happens.
That process is different for everyone, and while it seems like a vaguely sappy idea in the broad description, Peter Chelsom is a guy who has managed to avoid sap with a certain amount of grace over the years. His films "Hear My Song," "Funny Bones," and "The Mighty" are all movies that have a great deal of heart, but that never give in to the easy or the cheap move. Here, he's working from a novel by Francois Lelord, and with his co-writers Maria von Heland and Tinker Lindsay, he's done his best to apply a light touch to the story of Hector (Simon Pegg), a psychiatrist who has a tidy, orderly life and who one day realizes that he's not qualified to talk to his patients about happiness because he's not entirely sure that he's happy himself.
This comes as rather unpleasant news for his girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike), who works hard to make Hector's life as orderly as possible, and when he tells her that he's taking an open-ended trip around the world in search of whatever it is he's missing, she puts on a smiling face, but it guts her. Hector sets off having planned for anything, and at first I expected something very broadly comic. From the start, though, the film steers towards something more emotional, and it starts to build a respectable head of steam. The lessons that Hector picks up as he meets various people are genuine, some of them very small, some of them more profound, and there were several of them that I made note of for myself.
The film is gorgeously photographed by Kolja Brandt, and there are certain sequences that serve as a reminder that Chelsom may have done his time in the Hollywood trenches with movies like "Shall We Dance?" and "The Hannah Montana Movie," but at heart, he's got a gentle, poetic eye. Simon Pegg seems to have really taken the material to heart, and I think it's kind of a break-through performance for him. As good as he's been in other films, I don't think I've ever seen him play something this raw or real, and there are several moments where he just kind of breaks. Hector isn't some perfect role model, and he makes some ugly mistakes, which only makes him seem more human.
Similarly, I think Pike is very good here, and she's got the trickier role. Most of the time, when you see a movie like this and the girlfriend is introduced at the beginning of the film as someone who is very fastidious and organized, it's a set-up for that character to be treated as a villain, and I braced myself for what I consider a really unpleasant trope. Instead, Clara is treated with empathy, and her efforts to make a very clean and ordered life for Hector are treated as an act of love, not a suffocating prison. It made me like the movie more, and the way they treat Clara in the film is an indicator of how the film treats all of its characters.
There's a big move towards the end of the film that is a little too on-the-nose, but even as I rolled my eyes a bit at the idea, Pegg's performance sells it, and he basically has his Ebenezer Scrooge moment, all the pieces falling into place as he realizes what he wants and what he has. I found it moving and simple, and while it may mark me as a sentimentalist, "Hector" worked on me. I respect the way the film delivers its ideas, and I'm always happy to see Chelsom deliver something that is both sincere and successful.
"Hector and the Search For Happiness" may not unlock all of the secrets of the universe, but it does offer a welcome glimpse at how important the search is for all of us.