Hollywood’s Therapist Fix Comes Full Circle With Hector And The Search For Happiness

Arushi Sinha - 66 weeks ago

A film revolving around the life of a psychiatrist is not a rare occurrence in Hollywood. For a long time, filmmakers in the West have resorted to using this compelling and often quite entertaining story-telling tool of a therapist and psychoanalysis in drama and romantic comedies. In fact, a sub-genre called ‘self-help’ movies has evolved to categorize such films. This space takes on a more active form with a therapist literally seeking happiness around the world with Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) with Simon Pegg in the titular role.

(Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike in a still from Hector and the Search for Happiness)

But first, glancing through films where psychoanalysts play a key part in giving a story form and narrative structure throws up some interesting watches. Hope Springs, a 2012 romantic-comedy with a star-cast of Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell, also used a therapist (Carell) to help the failing marriage of Meryl and Tommy Lee Jones in a humorous yet realistic way. In 1999, two films treated the role of analysts in a manner that set a benchmark. Analyze This, the light hearted comedy featuring Robert De Niro as a gangster lord seeking therapy and a meek, honest therapist played by Billy Crystal made for unforgettable comedy despite an average script. Riding high on sheer performance and an original idea was The Sixth Sense by Manoj Night Shyamalan, where the part of a therapist that has to listen and go beyond logic and reason alone took on a whole new form of horror. Bruce Willis, child actor Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collete stun in this film of silences and meaningful glances. While none of these might be considered classics, they remain firmly etched in public memory for entertainment value. 

(Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal in a still from Analyze This)

Increasingly, TV has adapted this tool adeptly. In Lucifer, the therapist helps in taking the show’s story forward smoothly, as unfathomable as it may be that a human being treats angels and demons! Similarly, shows like Homecoming and The Unforgettable, The Sopranos (role of Dr Melfi), represent the contributions of a psychiatrist and therapist innovatively. 

Portrayal of psychoanalysts and therapists in popular film and cinema does an indirect service - it encourages people to discuss and observe their own mental health issues. It reduces stigma that is linked to seeing a ‘shrink’. In the long run, it makes going to the shrink palatable to many, especially when they see their favourite TV characters going to such doctors in the comfort of their living rooms. 

(Julia Roberts in a still from Homecoming)

Using a therapist serves as an insight into the minds of the characters without dealing with prolonged background stories. For instance, in the popular British Series Sex Education, the mother of the protagonist, a socially awkward young teenager is a sex therapist in a sleepy small town. This lends to constructing his own experiences with growing up, and finding his sexual voice effortlessly, also reflecting the awkwardness that parents can bring teenagers without meaning to do so. In a similar lighter vein, the 2014 film, Hector and the Search for Happiness places a psychiatrist at the center of a story where he goes hunting for the elusive emotion. A film adaptation of the 2002 French novel by Francois Lelord (he has a fleeting appearance in the film and could be seen in the nightclub scene), Peter Chelsom directs this romantic comedy.  Hector, played by Simon Pegg, is a psychiatrist who feels so unsatisfied that he is unable to truly help his patients find happiness. After an epiphany of sorts, he packs his bags and leaves on a quest to find the meaning of true happiness. Rosamund Pike and Toni Collette have key roles, playing his love interests who aid Hector in his quest. A pure ‘self-help’ movie, Hector and the Search for Happiness is essentially a discovery of people’s behaviour across the world; and how different people define happiness. At times, its visual montages, rushed imagery and diligent note taking of ‘happiness’ by the psychiatrist protagonist feel amateurish. Considered in its entirety, the film holds up because it gets its core message-that happiness is to be lived and not sought in an easy going manner. The slightly quirky take by Peter Chelsom might not appeal in the first instance but it slowly sucks you in. 

HATSFH is also an international epic journey and the film was shot in four continents – Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. During the Chinese leg, author Francois Lelord after having finished the sixth book in the Hector series visited the set to meet the director and the outcome was a fleeting appearance which could be seen in the nightclub scene in the film.  The film saw its premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 where it received positive response.

(Hector and the Search for Happiness is currently playing on myNK)


Hector and the Search for Happiness / Simon Pegg / Rosamund Pike / Toni Collette / Peter Chelsom / Analyze This / The Sixth Sense / Homecoming

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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