Most of us realize by age 16 or so that happiness is not terra firma. In the best of circumstances, joy, pleasure, and contentment wash over us at regular intervals like waves on a beach. You simply can’t plant a flag on happiness and claim it’s yours forever.
The irritatingly pat “Hector and the Search for Happiness” ignores this basic fact of life, pretending instead that a handful of cutesy, self-help rules can guide you toward permanent emotional fulfillment as reliably as instructions from a recipe.
Following in the mawkishly earnest footsteps of fellow comedic actors Ben Stiller in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Jim Carrey in “The Majestic,” Simon Pegg goes full sad-face as a psychiatrist who can’t make any of his patients — or himself — happy anymore.
Hector isn’t the kind of loser character Pegg has personified throughout his career. In fact, he is very nearly a catch, with a successful girlfriend (Rosamund Pike, Pegg’s frequent onscreen love interest), a busy practice, and a beautiful if austere apartment.
That makes our already unassertive protagonist difficult to identify with; who cares if some well-heeled yuppie is a little bored with his life? Aren’t we all? But Christopher Plummer‘s jaunty narrator informs us that that Hector needs something more from life, so off we go on a globe-trotting quest (for something that doesn’t exist) that ends up feeling about as urgent as a search for unicorns.
Is it just class envy that makes Stiller’s thrill-seeking expeditions in “Walter Mitty” and Julia Roberts‘ hedonistic adventures in “Eat Pray Love” such a dependable trigger for instinctive eye-rolling? Hector doesn’t make it any easier to like him when his midlife crisis takes the form of extreme wanderlust and he books flights to Asia, then Africa, then America.
Meeting a slew of ethnic caricatures is apparently one road to happiness, which is what Hector does in Beijing, Tibet, and “Africa” (the script really doesn’t get any more geographically specific than the name of the continent). Pegg recently defended the film’s journey to “Africa” by arguing that Hector’s fable-like journey is told from the perspective of the character as a child (Jakob Davies), who is seen occasionally seen staring plaintively at his adult life.
Also read: Good Morning Oscar, October 15: Pike’s Peaks
But there’s not really a line dividing archetype and stereotype, especially when you’re talking about racial minorities. The accrual of Hector’s encounters with a Chinese prostitute, sub-Saharan kidnappers, and other borderline-offensive types simply becomes embarrassing to behold.
Just as discomfiting, and increasingly trite, is Hector’s steadfast focus on the secrets of happiness when he encounters all manner of injustice throughout his voyage, from a pimp slapping a call girl to a sick child wasting away in an underfunded hospital. Saddened but ultimately undisturbed, Hector remains profoundly self-centered, and the resolution to his ennui is astoundingly unimaginative in its narcissism and conservatism.
Violence and death haunt Hector’s journey, as does some jarringly discordant humor from Pegg. The British comedy star draws a faint laugh or two with an impassioned request for privacy to the mouse with whom he shares a prison cell or an extended gag about how “everybody wants happiness” (pronounced with a silent “H” to sound like “a penis”).
These Pegg-ish moments are then forgotten when Hector pulls a red-faced tantrum on one of his patients or daydreams about accidentally killing his childhood dog. It gradually becomes clear that director Peter Chelsom (“Hannah Montana: The Movie,” “Serendipity”) has neither an idea of who Hector is nor any control over the film’s rowdily careening tone.
Though Pegg is satisfactory in the role, Hector would have benefited from a stronger actor who could cohere all those dissonant scenes into a single character.
Toni Colette appears late in the film as Hector’s lost love, and despite a sensible monologue about how her former flame shouldn’t live too much in his own head, she, too, eventually comes across storm of varying moods, rather than a person.
In its conflation of happiness and self-knowledge, “Hector” often feels like the visual approximation of a therapy session. And just as therapy is work, enduring this mess is exertion, too.