Talking Movies

August 12, 2014

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Simon Pegg is Hector, a psychiatrist who travels the world researching happiness in this comedy-drama adaptation of a French novel.

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Hector lives a very orderly life in London. He treats patients with absurdly first-world problems, and lives with Clara (Rosamund Pike); who creates enticing names for pharmaceutical products. But is it all too orderly? Hector decides to go on a journey of enlightenment; partying with wealthy businessman Edward (Stellan Skarsgard) in Shanghai, praying with a wise monk (Togo Igawa) in Tibet, working with old medical school friend Michael (Barry Atsma) and clashing with Columbian drug-lord Diego (Jean Reno) in central Africa, before finally arriving in California to talk with the pioneering Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer). And with Coreman’s research assistant Agnes (Toni Collette) aka The One Who Got Away… Clara is rightly suspicious that Hector’s entire trip is an excuse to reconnect with Agnes, but the trip itself actually does teach Hector some hard lessons about life and, yes, happiness.

Director Peter Chelsom has had an odd career (Funny Bones and Serendipity?), and this is another curious entry. Hector and the Search for Happinessbears all the marks of a Europudding; a fantastic amount of international producers, a multinational cast, a screenplay by Swede Maria von Heland, rewritten by Chelsom himself with Tinker Lindsay, all adapted from Francois Lelord’s novel; and yet it actually almost works. Hector’s journey is very naive. The comedy of Hector’s clumsiness is quite forced, and yet there is a very nice trick with a running gag which I won’t spoil. But, though it works, it’s almost a synecdoche for the film: Hector works best when it is serious, but most of the time it’s whimsical. Hector’s infatuation with Shanghai student Ying Li (Ming Zhao) is nicely undercut, but whimsy keeps intruding and preventing true substance.

Sure, there’s some quite amusing Wes Andersonish FX fun with a decrepit plane but the film’s standout sequence is when Hector tends to an ill woman on his flight to LA, because Pegg gets to play quiet empathy. Collette is fantastically cast as the woman worth waiting for, and her harshness is perfectly judged. As her mentor Plummer rightly remarks Hector is not responding to stimuli like a grown man, so how can he ever expect to be happy? The film itself, however, when it comes to articulate its grown-up wisdom promotes a facile viewpoint: change, for its own sake, guarantees happiness. Why is a comfortable routine ispo facto bad though? Do people really like constant change? As a rigid guiding principle it seems to say ‘That was great, we really enjoyed it, now let’s not never do that again.’

Hector and the Search for Happiness is a curious film. It doesn’t quite work as a comedy-drama, but it is consistently engaging throughout (not least because of its colourful cast) with some memorable moments.

2.5/5

February 24, 2012

Margaret

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was shot in 2005 and delayed ever since by squabbling over its running time, but it’s only intermittently worth the wait…

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a deeply unpleasant privileged NYC teenager whose selfish actions cause Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver to run over a pedestrian. This leads to one of the most traumatic scenes you’ll ever see as Paquin comforts the dying Monica (Allison Janney), whose horrific injury remains just about off-screen. Lonergan wanders off on a Kieran Culkin-heavy tangent about drug-taking and teenage sex, before showcasing Matthew Broderick fighting a student over the correct interpretation of a couplet in King Lear (perilously similar to a scene in The Corrections), and multiple politics classes ending in shouting matches over Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Meanwhile Lisa’s actress mother Joan is nervous about her play transferring to Broadway, and is pursuing a bizarrely scripted romance with Jean Reno. Endless montages of NYC throughout perhaps cue this as a study of post-9/11 hysterical anger.

Lonergan’s celebrated play This Is Our Youth (staged at the Project in 2009 with Charlie Murphy) was an acute portrayal of emotionally abusive male friendships, while his directorial debut You Can Count On Me (2000) was a warm study of sibling camaraderie in the face of diverging lives. Margaret, by contrast, achieves his usual unpredictability only thru utter aimlessness. Focus belatedly arrives when Lisa decides to atone for her own guilt by starting a legal crusade to punish the bus driver for killing Monica. The film becomes draining as Lisa’s increasingly obnoxious/deranged behaviour leads to so many abrasive (and always needlessly escalating) shouting matches that you wish Olivia Thirlby would drop a heavy book on her classmate. If Kenneth Lonergan wanted to write for Curb Your Enthusiasm so bad back in 2005 why didn’t he just ring Larry David and ask?

There is much to admire in Margaret. Lonergan’s theatrical dialogue is as potently witty and expressive as ever and produces many crackling sequences, not least some stunningly astringent scenes between despairing mother and monstrous daughter. It’s great fun spotting pre-fame Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo’s wife and pre-Juno Thirlby as the voice of reason in the strident politics class. Lonergan even gives himself a droll supporting role as Lisa’s absent father. The title comes from a Hopkins couplet, “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for”, but if Lonergan was attempting to make some Donnean point about how the senseless death of one person affects us all, he just leaves the audience as confused as cameoing Matt Damon’s consistently perplexed looking teacher.

Margaret runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes. I have no idea what point Lonergan is trying to make in that time. And I think the studio, which insisted Margaret be cut from 3 hours, didn’t believe he’d any idea either…

3/5

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