What possibly could have possessed a comedian as sharp as Simon Pegg to squander his gifts on a movie as soggy as Hector And The Search For Happiness? Here’s one theory: Having just embodied the epitome of stubborn arrested development in last summer’s The World’s End, Pegg wanted to go as far as possible in the opposite direction—to play a character capable of actual emotional growth. Mission accomplished, if that was indeed the mission. But watching the actor blubber uncontrollably, make funny faces at adorable sick moppets, and ponder the big questions in silly safari-wear may prove less liberating for the audience than it was for him. Pegg has bumbled headlong into a treacly travelogue of a movie, based on a self-help bestseller by a French psychiatrist. And there’s more existential wisdom in five random, zombie-infested minutes of Shaun Of The Dead than in the full two hours of this feel-good folly.
For a moment, as he fast-cuts through the daily routines of his eponymous hero, director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity, Hannah Montana: The Movie) appears to be doing a slightly sluggish imitation of Shaun director Edgar Wright’s style. Quickly, however, the film finds its own misguided groove, as Pegg’s buttoned-up psychiatrist escapes his rut—and befuddles his longtime girlfriend (Rosamund Pike)—by embarking on a globe-hopping research odyssey in search of the key to true joy and contentment. Hector heads first to China, partying with an affluent businessman (Stellan Skarsgård) and swooning for a suspiciously accommodating beauty (Ming Zhao). Next, it’s on to Africa, where he helps out at a rural hospital, softens the hard heart of a drug lord (Jean Reno), and survives a run-in with gun-toting militants. As he crisscrosses the planet, eventually hoping to reconnect with an old flame in Los Angeles, Hector keeps a journal, scribbling such fortune-cookie insights as, “Avoiding unhappiness is not happiness” and, “Listening is loving.” Like any serious professional, he also fills the margins of his notebook with doodles, which Chelsom transforms into cutesy animated vignettes.
Though Hector thinks he’s looking for answers to better help his patients, his search for happiness turns out to be more of a soul search—an elaborate version of backpacking through Europe after college to “find” himself. What’s unsavory about this sickly-sweet picture is the way it turns various cultural backdrops, as well as the people striving and suffering against them, into window dressing for a wealthy white guy’s Eat Pray Love vacation. Hector is just a tourist, sampling the exotic flavors of the world, and he processes every hardship he encounters as a teachable moment. (When, for example, the man discovers that his Chinese crush is actually a prostitute with a really shitty life, he concludes, “Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story”—as if the best takeaway from her heart-wrenching circumstances is that it’s a bummer she was paid to show him affection.) Pegg, for his part, approaches every new situation with golly-shucks optimism, before bawling his eyes out in the finale. The irony is that a movie all about emotional honesty—about opening up your heart to feeling and experience—turns out to be pretty emotionally dishonest. Hector may make a breakthrough, but for Pegg, this feels like a real step backward.