Looking to run fortune cookie writers and the post card industry out of business in one fell swoop, Peter Chelsom’s Hector and the Search for Happiness is not a film meant for cynics. With its pithy musings on what it means to be content, and slideshow approach to giving those musings an air of worldly wisdom, it asks the viewer to suspend not just disbelief, but emotional continence. If you’re capable of that, it will not doubt prove a wildly exciting and uplifting story of self-discovery. Keep even a shred of your self-awareness about you, and the empty enlightenment Hector and the Search for Happiness is offering becomes as grating as it is pat.
Simon Pegg stars as Hector, a London-based 30-something with a serious problem. Not a financial problem, mind you, as his booming psychiatric practice allows for a plush existence, one that enables him to travel the globe at the drop of a hat. And his issues aren’t romantic, either. He’s got a lovely live-in girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike), who dotes on him endlessly. She prepares him breakfast, cleans their gorgeous apartment, and couldn’t be happier for it.
But Hector himself is not happy, and sets out on the quest to find an elusive state of being. With Clara’s support, he impulsively shakes up the status quo keeping him down in the dumps by jet setting off to China, Africa and the States, all in order to research what makes a person happy.
It’s not impossible to make a character like Hector sympathetic, even if the affluent stability of his life would be enviable to most people. In a bid to make him identifiable outside of his economic or cultural identity, Hector and the Search for Happiness overcorrects, making the resulting film a journey of self-discovery for the world’s most boring human being.
Whatever personality there is to Hector is all Pegg’s, who’s on amiable, bumbling auto-pilot trying to find anything uniquely characteristic about a protagonist that’s as ill-defined as his objective. Characters and the screenplay jokingly compare Hector to the likes of Indiana Jones and Tintin, but even as the film contrives outlandish situations for Hector to gain some perspective, he’s a milquetoast blank slate no matter the scenario.
And yet, no matter where Hector goes, people seem to find him fascinating. Early on, the idea of anyone being interested in such a dullard gets undercut during his first stop, Shanghai, where a comely travelling companion turns out to be an escort. Too bad the punchline means part of Hector’s deeply spiritual self-reflection involves immediately cheating on his long-term partner, even as he worries Clara might be fooling around with a co-worker while he’s away.
As it does for Hector, Search for Happiness is meant to offer audiences gentle reassurance about their place in this great, big, scary world by making said world as easy to compartmentalize as possible. How else to explain snapshot experiences so grossly condescending, that Hector’s second stop is in Africa. Not a country within the continent of Africa, or a specific city therein with a unique culture. It’s always just referred to as “Africa,” where Hector makes friends with a drug-lord (Jean Reno, one of a few fine character actors popping in to spout platitudes), and spends days imprisoned by gun-totting locals.
The film tries to dress up its fast food approach to ethnography with large dollops of whimsy that only further alienate Hector and the Search for Happiness from the human condition it claims to be exploring. Tibetan monks offer Hector their advice over Skype, and a dance party breaks out for him in Africa just by virtue of him existing. Bookish narration and animated sequences occasionally punctuate dialogue overflowing with bad wordplay, and an aesthetic that makes your average depression medication ad look earthy.
Hector collects a number of cross-stitch-worthy viewpoints over the course of his adventure, but when forced to plant its feet, Search for Happiness goes completely soft in the head. Christopher Plummer shows up towards the end in order for the film to contrive some sort of visually representable climax, as Hector and the Search for Happiness builds towards a nauseatingly cloying crescendo. It’s a finale completely in keeping with the rest of the film, which doesn’t seek to explore what it means to be happy so much as wrap up treacle-y sentiment into easily digestible nuggets.
The world is not an actively worse place for Hector and the Search for Happiness existing, and like any tourism montage, it looks real pretty from time to time. Fact of the matter is, the world could use more film’s that share Hector’s curiosity and enthusiasm. Its heart is in the right place, but to fight bad bromides with bad bromides, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and films like Hector and the Search for Happiness.