Pegg’s performance is high point of mostly unoriginal travel tale
Hector and the Search for Happiness is a curious movie. Based on the trailer alone, you might think you’re in for a lighthearted, feel-good, seize-the-day picture, wherein the lead character Learns and Grows by ditching his staid life in search of adventure, à la Eat, Pray, Love or last year’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But the surprising thing about director Peter Chelsom’s film, based on a popular French novel by François Lelord, is that while it certainly contains its fair share of clichés and groan-inducing scenes, it is both darker and more sensitive than you might expect.
The guy doing the Learning and Growing here is Hector (Simon Pegg), a milquetoast London psychiatrist who is basically a British version of Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty character. Hector leads a comfortable, if somewhat routine, life (as all characters in films like these must) with his sweet and doting live-in girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike, giving her all in a rather thankless role). We sense things are amiss for Hector, though, when we see him doodling drawings of Birkenstocks while he half-heartedly listens to his patients drone on about what can best be described as first-world problems: indecision, faltering relationships, ennui. Hector comes to realize that he, too, is in a rut, and decides that a quest to distant lands is the cure for what ails him.
And thus begins Hector’s journey to find out what makes people happy, and already we have our first tired trope: the affluent westerner who travels to third-world countries to learn from the poor-but-happy natives. So we find Hector in China, where he naturally befriends a wise monk high on a snow-covered mountain, and then, later visits a clinic-working doctor friend in Africa (in an unnamed country, since, apparently, Chelsom and his screenwriters figured “Africa” is enough of a specific setting, which is typical of the narcissism and stereotypes that inhabit this picture).
In the Africa section, though, Hector does undergo an indelible experience that deeply affects him, the nature of which, at least, is a stark and unexpected contrast to everything that precedes it, and does give the film some dramatic heft. Finally, Hector concludes his travels with a visit to Santa Monica, where he meets up with an old girlfriend (Toni Collette), and complications naturally ensue. These, though, unfold in scenes that at least have the ring of truth to them, unlike much of what happens in the international escapades.
Throughout the film, bits of Hector’s travel journal entries appear on screen to enlighten us about what he’s learning about happiness. These include such gems as, “happiness is feeling completely alive,” and “listening is loving.” These platitudes and the film’s innate triteness are thankfully balanced by some fine performances, which do redeem the film a bit. Pegg shows remarkable sensitivity here, especially in a pivotal scene with a very sick woman on an airplane, and he brings some genuine emotional depth to a picture that could easily be dismissed as superficial pap. And Toni Collette proves again she is one of the best character actresses working today, as she delivers some of the film’s best and smartest lines with a clear-eyed forthrightness missing from most of the picture. Stellan Skarsgard, as a wealthy business man Hector meets en route to China, Jean Reno as an underworld African crime boss who befriends Hector, and Christopher Plummer as a happiness researcher in Los Angeles nicely round out the cast in smaller but well-crafted roles that you will wish had been larger.
Despite its shortcomings, the film does give the viewer plenty to think about and discuss, aside from just the eye-rolling plot coincidences, of which there are many. What is happiness? How do we find it, and how do we keep it? The film has its own easy answers that it lays on as thick as the sweet potato stew Hector enjoys in Africa, but yours might be different… and, I can almost guarantee, far less glib.
Hector and the Search for Happiness opens today at Bay Area theaters.