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Hector and the Search for Happiness movie review: unhappymess

Hector and the Search for Happiness red light

A rich white man tours the misery of others to learn about happiness. Yes, it is as offensive as it sounds.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Simon Pegg

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Are you poor, living in squalor, working a demeaning job, suffering from a lack of white male privilege, and/or fatally ill? Well, you should thank your lucky stars that you’re not Hector (Simon Pegg: Cuban Fury, The World’s End). He may be a wealthy psychiatrist living the high life in London, but he’s just not happy. Not with his gorgeous, enormous flat. Not with his beautiful, brilliant, and attentive girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike: A Long Way Down, The World’s End). So off he goes, jetting around the world — sometimes in first class! — to find happiness. Like you do. (Clara will stay home, like a good girl, and wait for Hector to get his shit together.) Or maybe he’ll simply find some damn thing that will make us sympathize with him? In this, he will not succeed.

From China to South Africa to Los Angeles, Hector is granted insultingly simplistic nuggets of greeting-card wisdom from people mostly in woeful situations: dying from curable diseases, living amidst violent conflict, prostituting themselves, the usual sort of everyday horrors that plenty of nonrich, nonwhite, nonmen find themselves enduring. And yes, since you asked, the concept of a rich white man — who is so clueless about life that he doesn’t even realize that he is rich — touring the misery of others to learn about happiness is fairly offensive.

“People who are afraid of death are afraid of life,” he discovers. And “Listening is loving.” That’s right, listening is his highly educated, very well-paid job, and he needed to go halfway around the world to have someone tell him this. He’s even deeply touched by it! (To be fair to Hector, he is clearly the world’s worst psychiatrist: he barely listens to his patients, appears to have little appreciation for basic human nature, and seemingly cannot interpret obvious human behaviors, like what his encounter in Shanghai was really about until he was smacked over the head with the truth.)

But hey. A laughing Buddhist monk (Togo Igawa: 47 Ronin, Gambit) is thrown in so the stereotypes aren’t all gloomy ones. (Though he doesn’t even get a name. He’s just “Old Monk.”) Cultural appropriation can be fun, too!

Worst of all is the insane-making upshot of it all: Are you poor, living in squalor, working a demeaning job, suffering from a lack of white male privilege, and/or fatally ill? Chances are you’re actually happy and wise, so don’t bother aspiring to Hector’s life: he is actually aspiring to yours.


US/Canada release date: Sep 19 2014 | UK release date: Aug 15 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated MPDEFC (contains manic pixie dream exotic foreign cultures)
MPAA: rated R for language and some brief nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • Beowulf

    Rich people are the most concerned about being “happy.” The further down the poverty pole you go, the less people even have time to worry about such a vague concept. It takes some much of one’s time and energy to survive and pay the bills that abstracts like happiness rarely raise their heads.

  • Beowulf

    Robin Williams story: He marveled that Mrs. De Gaulle once said that “a penis is the most importance thing in life.”
    Now…….say “happiness” in a heavily-French accented voice.

  • RogerBW

    Eat Pray Love II: Men Have Feelings Too, But This Isn’t A Chick Flick, Honest.

    Beowulf, I would note that “rich people are unhappy, poor people are not” is a tale often told by rich people to poor people.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    That “joke” is in this film.

  • LaSargenta

    I’d beg to differ on that. Survival and struggle brings the need for happiness to the forefront.

    Rich people may be discontented. They may be unhappy. But, poor people — and people in between those two — also have those feelings.

  • Jurgan

    So I assume the movie ends with him giving away all of his material possessions in order to join the poor in their blissful squalor, right? Right?

  • Bluejay

    I attended a talk by Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a nonfiction book about the lives of the residents of a slum in India. She said she struggled with how to depict joy in the book: she felt the need to focus on their struggles and misery and worried that too much emphasis on the happy moments would somehow make the reader trivialize their very real problems — “oh, they’re a fraction of an inch from eviction and starvation, but look at how happy they are.” (Looks like this film didn’t worry about that enough.) So she didn’t write about the joyful moments so much, but she acknowledged that even desperately poor people experience happiness too.

  • Beowulf

    You, like several others, are misinterpreting what I said…or, at least, what I mean. When the saber-toothed tiger is chasing you, you don’t worry about “Am I happy?” You think, “Feet, don’t fail me now.” People with leisure time have plenty of time to feel sorry for themselves. People busting their ass to put food on the table don’t have time for feel sorry for themselves. You seem to think I’m a 1-percenter. I grew up pretty poor but didn’t know we were poor–most of my family’s friends weren’t any richer than we were. We were happy to have anything and it didn’t take much to keep us amused. I’m retired from teaching and writing now and never made much money–some years nothing–so my S.S. and TIAA-CREF is nothing to brag about. That doesn’t make me noble: to have money seems to be a better thing than not having money.

    I see nephews and nieces who essentially have anything they want handed to them. Since it comes without any cost, monetary or psychic, it doesn’t mean much. They fixate on what they don’t have that their friends DO have. Poor people are plenty unhappy much of the time…but they have REAL reasons for being unhappy, unlike the family that afford only one ski trip to Europe this year!

  • Beowulf

    Really? That’s…er…awesome…?

  • amanohyo

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re saying that very poor people are generally preoccupied with the initial levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As a result, they don’t define happiness in quite the same way as a wealthy person would. Happiness to a poor person is more of a short term, concrete concept. A fleeting moment, quickly swallowed up by the struggle for survival. For a wealthy person, happiness is more of an abstract state of being tied to idea of self-actualization.
    It seems to me that the way a person defines happiness is more a function of their personality type than their income level, at least here in the States where the majority of people are relatively well off and possess large quantities of disposable income and disposable time. I’ve spent some time living on the street, and people who are worried about their physiological health and safety do experience joy in brief spurts (often literally), but the idea of “being happy” as in achieving a permanent state of happiness is an alien concept.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Or could be he learns some way to be happy with his existence of material comfort. :-)

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Already this comments thread is more interesting and more meaningful than the movie.

  • cinderkeys

    So it’s inspiration porn featuring people who live in poverty instead of people with disabilities. Thank you for watching so we don’t have to.

  • Beowulf

    You are not wrong. Thank you, sir.

  • Beowulf

    Wonderful, cinderkeys!

  • Danielm80

    I think it’s probably a mistake to make broad generalizations about poor people, or about rich people.

    I would guess that someone who’s literally in danger of starving to death isn’t giving much thought to long-term happiness, but not all poverty is that extreme.

    I can imagine a poor person who thinks: “I love my wife and my children, and I’ll do whatever I can to support them.” During the day, working at a horrific job, he’s probably miserable, but when he’s at home with his family, he may be extremely happy.

    There are also people who want to produce great works of art. They may be incredibly poor until they’ve sold their first novel or their first record album (and some of them will be poor even then). But I’d like to think that the people staying at the Chelsea Hotel in the late 20th century got a certain amount of happiness out of the art they created and the relationships they formed.

  • David

    ‘rich white man — who is so clueless about life that he doesn’t even realize that he is rich — touring the misery of others to learn about happiness is fairly offensive.”

    Okay, I get the rich part but how does him being white matter? The fact that he’s white would probably make him more of a target and less safe in some of these places. To the degree that being white might benefit him it might be because people would peg him as a tourist and might be nicer to him so that he would buy overpriced souvenirs from them. I don’t like this concept of “white privilege” i.e. that non-white people are in a default position of victimhood. A well off UK citizen touring places like this is either offensive or not. The skin color of the person is immaterial.

  • David

    I can’t stand disability porn. Although I am partial to porn featuring disabled people.

  • Bluejay

    One of the very first things people will likely notice about you, as a basis to make snap judgments about how to treat you, isn’t your bank account but your skin color. (Ask Oprah about her experiences “shopping while black” sometime.) As someone who’s lived in the US as well as overseas for many years, I’m comfortable with the general observation that, yes, white folks are given preferential treatment, both inside and outside the West. It’s not so much that nonwhites are automatically victims as that whites are playing at a lower difficulty setting than others.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7FawbAJpoQ

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Privilege exists whether you like the concept or not. Example: It is white privilege to believe that color of a person’s skin doesn’t matter.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    TMI.

  • Tonio Kruger

    My Mexican-born father’s white skin did not keep him from facing prejudice whenever he applied for a white-collar job back in the 1960s. But it did ensure that he at least had a chance to fill out a job application before his would-be employers discovered his Spanish surname.

    Just saying.

    Then again, there is also something to be said about class prejudice — unless you expect me to consider it a big coincidence that back in my college years, my middle brother’s white Anglo-Saxon buddies used to get routinely pulled over by the police at the same corner that I was able to pass daily with no incident at all. And that said difference in treatment had nothing at all to do with the fact that I would usually be driving my father’s late-model Cadillac and my brother’s friends would be driving an old jalopy that virtually shouted out “no money for lawyers here.”

  • Tonio Kruger

    I guess it’s a good thing my ancestors did not have to worry too much about saber-toothed tigers.

  • Bluejay

    But it did ensure that he at least had a chance to fill out a job application

    Well, exactly.

    Then again, there is also something to be said about class prejudice

    Of course. I never said that there could only be one kind of prejudice at a time. :-)

    And I wonder if some African Americans driving an old jalopy would receive the exact same treatment from the cops as your brother’s friends.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    The concept of privilege doesn’t mean that life doesn’t sometimes suck for those who enjoy privilege along a certain spectrum. But it does mean that even when things suck, they would suck even worse without that privilege.

    And just because someone enjoy certain kinds of privilege doesn’t mean that they don’t feel the lack of privilege in another direction. That I enjoy white privilege doesn’t mean I don’t feel the lack of male privilege. That you enjoyed wealth privilege doesn’t mean you’re not impacted by your lack of white privilege. (I’m presuming from what you’re saying here and what you’ve said elsewhere that your skin is not pale.)

  • Tonio Kruger

    Warning: some of you might consider the following either TMI or TL; DR. ;-)

    FWIW, I have both dark-skinned relatives and light-skinned relatives. I have mentioned on other threads and other sites that my skin turns pink in the noonday sun so I feel silly pretending that most of you all would see me as a person of color. Indeed, most white strangers have said that I look Greek or Italian. (Not that those ethnic groups don’t have their issues with white privilege as well.) However, I have female cousins who look like Jennifer Lopez and an aunt who was nicknamed “Arab princess” because she looks like — well — an Arab princess… If I have ever given you a differing idea of what I really look like, it was not intentional.

    My father was not born rich; in fact, he was the son of a migrant worker. For many years, he worked in a factory to pay his way through college and he used to joke about having grown up in the type of bad neighborhoods that even people in bad neighborhoods described as bad neighborhoods. He did not really become that well-off until after about the time I entered fifth grade — at which time we moved to Texas and he got a job in the computer programming industry — and even then he had to work a lot of overtime to pay the bills.

    I did not grow up as rich as some of my Mexican relatives — indeed, some of my kinfolk down south grew up with maids and chauffeurs — nor did I grow up as poor as some of my American cousins whose parents — for some reason or another — were never able to move out of the slums. I consider myself at best middle-class — though thanks to the Bush II recession, that might seem like at best wishful thinking.

    I know that one form of privilege does not necessarily protect one from another. I saw that quite well the last time I visited Mexico and spent time with a Mexican pen pal.

    But having grown up with a father who had many things to say about poverty, I can’t help being a little obsessed with class issues. And it does not help that classism often tends to have a veneer of respectability in our culture that most conventional prejudices do not. (Though I would like to think that that’s changing. At least I hope so.)

  • Tonio Kruger

    And yet it has been a traditionally liberal — if not progressive belief — that in an ideal world, the color of a person’s skin should not matter. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in an ideal world — though I would like to think that it is more ideal than the one my parents grew up in.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I suspect they would. As would some Mexican-Americans, some Vietnamese-Americans, some undocumented immigrants, etc.

    FWIW, I can not help but notice that whenever I used to talk to friends and co-workers about how my late father taught me to be ultra-respectful when dealing with a police officer during a traffic stop — addressing him as “sir,” keeping my hands on the steering wheel, making no sudden movements that can be misinterpreted — my African-American acquaintances were generally more apt to understand where I was coming from than my white acquaintances.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Heh. Could this be the unofficial theme song of this movie?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H32wVhH7cbk

  • Bluejay

    You say “and yet” as if you are disagreeing with MAJ, or suggesting that she’s contradicting some liberal dogma. But as you say, this isn’t an ideal world. There’s no contradiction between believing that in an ideal world race should not matter, and observing that in the real world race does matter, and working to ameliorate that.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    No, it shouldn’t matter. But only a fool would believe that in the world we live in, skin color doesn’t matter.

  • http://irishcrime.wordpress.com/ Irish Crime News

    Sounds like the dire “EAT. PRAY. LOVE” all over again, but this time swopping Pegg with Roberts.

    - and Simon Pegg is an equally annoying actor.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    I liked EPL, and I love Simon Pegg. And I still hated this film.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I don’t disagree with MaryAnn. I just find it a bit of a paradox that on one hand, we are taught to believe that race should not matter and yet when we try to put that belief into practice, we often seem to be treated like idiots for doing so.

    It’s almost like the Christian saying about being in the world but not of the world. But I suppose that is a bit of a paradox too.

    Then again, if this problem had an easy solution, it would have been solved by now.

  • Danielm80

    I don’t think it’s a paradox at all. You can believe that there should be no hunger in the world. That doesn’t mean you should stop giving charity to people who need food.

  • Bluejay

    Yeah, I think that’s where some people who ridicule liberals get confused. If racism is like hunger, then they think that liberals who say “there should be no hunger” are also saying “there are no hungry people,” and they accuse us of being hypocritical and “hungrist” when we talk about the problem of hunger.

    Talking about race isn’t being racist. It’s necessary to talk about race in order to counter racism.

    Just to get all my anti-troll arguments out of the way. :-)

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    we are taught to believe that race should not matter

    For starters, “we” are NOT all taught this.

    and yet when we try to put that belief into practice, we often seem to be treated like idiots for doing so.

    Who treats *you* like an idiot for treating people like individuals worthy of respect regardless of the color of their skin?

    You may well live your life treating people like individuals worthy of respect regardless of the color of their skin. That’s awesome. But this does not negate the fact that plenty of other people are not living like this.

  • Tonio Kruger

    For starters, “we” are NOT all taught this.

    True.

    But I don’t hear the type of casual racism from most younger people that I used to hear from my maternal grandparents and other people of their generation.

    And I don’t see most TV shows, movies or news shows endorsing the type of attitudes that were common to that generation as well.

    I won’t pretend that there isn’t a whole lot of progress left to be made but attitudes have changed.

    That said…

    Who treats *you* like an idiot for treating people like individuals worthy of respect regardless of the color of their skin?

    Technically nobody… at this moment.

    But that could change.

    And unfortunately, that statement you made could be interpreted many ways.

    Just look at the many interpretations it has undergone during political debates about affirmative action.

    Does treating a person like an individual worthy of respect regardless of the color of their skin mean supporting affirmative action? Treating it like a necessary evil? Phasing it out in favor of a more equitable and less race-based system?

    Principled people of good will tend to disagree on the answers to the above question and people of bad will try to further complicate the issue by pretending that only one answer — and one answer alone — is suitable.

    (Then, of course, there is the whole question of how much one should trust a system that was first introduced by President Richard Nixon, a person not exactly famous for his love of minorities.)

    I don’t pretend to be more noble than most of the people who post here when it comes to race — though I would like to think I’m better than the anti-Semite who used to posted on this site a few years ago — but I do try to be a good person. I’m just not always sure what being a good person means — apart from not sharing the racial beliefs of my maternal grandparents. And I would rather not support a certain policy just because it is good for me or people like me.

  • David

    Really? I thought that was called not being a racist.

  • David

    Everybody’s privileged in some way. No two people on earth have the same equal chance of success. My problem is with what I see as trying to perpetuate divisions between people. I’m all for calling out racism when I see it but to automatically assign a status of “privileged” to one group of people seems to do more harm than good. That’s sort of what we’re seeing in Ferguson, MO right now. Without knowing the facts of the case, without even waiting for any kind of investigation, people are rioting and publicity hounds are taking advantage of the situation to further their own agenda.

    To put it another way: what’s more helpful to say to black or brown people, “you can achieve what you’re willing to work for,” or, “the white man will always keep you down so don’t bother”?

  • Bluejay

    Difference between doesn’t matter and shouldn’t matter. Like I said.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    No, it’s being willfully blind, ignorant, and — I’ll say it again — privileged.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    You are willfully misunderstanding every single concept under discussion here. Please go educate yourself some before continuing to participate in this conversation.

  • Bluejay

    My problem is with what I see as trying to perpetuate divisions between people

    There’s a difference between trying to perpetuate divisions, and simply pointing out the divisions that are already there and calling for something to be done about that.

    Fact: Black communities suffer from police brutality much more often than white communities, and the anger in Ferguson is an expression of that longstanding situation.

    Also, please read this.

    what’s more helpful to say to black or brown people, “you can achieve what you’re willing to work for,” or, “the white man will always keep you down so don’t bother”?

    “You can achieve what you’re willing to work for” is the ideal, and we should be telling that to everyone. It’s also correct to point out, “The barriers to achieving what you work for are lower for white people than for others,” and to work towards changing that. I don’t know where the “don’t bother” comes from. No one is advocating apathy.

  • Bluejay

    No two people on earth have the same equal chance of success.

    And in this society, white people have more chances of success than others. THAT’S white privilege.

    You say you want to tell nonwhite people, “you can achieve what you’re willing to work for.” But that presumes that everyone has a FAIR CHANCE at achieving what they work for. That’s what the American promise is, right? Everyone is supposed to achieve a level of success commensurate with their talents and efforts, but we’re all supposed to start from the same starting line, on an equal playing field. Criticizing white privilege is simply recognizing that the playing field is NOT level.

    That doesn’t mean nonwhites can’t succeed, or have more success than some whites. It DOES mean that they have to overcome more barriers to get there.

  • Danielm80

    Here’s a hint, David. Watch this clip:

    http://www.salon.com/2014/08/27/must_see_morning_clip_jon_stewart_finally_gives_fox_the_takedown_weve_been_waiting_for/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socialflow

    You see all the reporters and pundits who aren’t Jon Stewart? You are now all of them.

  • Bluejay

    Everyone should watch that clip. Stewart’s summation is beyond excellent.

  • http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3769949/ thatpj

    Nailed it!