Hector and the Search for Happiness
Hector and the Search for Happiness is about what one might get taking a male-slanted version of Eat Pray Love and crossing it with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty then grafting on a Jerry Maguire-inspired moment at the end. As cynical as that might sound, the result is affecting and not nearly as treacly as, for example, Love Actually. In fact, in order to show the "happiness" noted in the title, director Peter Chelsom ventures into some dark territory to provide a contrast. This results in a surprisingly unpleasant scene of torture and deprivation that may shock some viewers expecting to see a lightweight Simon Pegg dramedy about the meaning of joy.
The premise is that mild-mannered Hector (Pegg), a psychiatrist who lives a highly regimented life, reaches a mid-life crisis that propels him on an international journey to understand the meaning of happiness. His live-in girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike), is nonplused by this decision and wonders whether it reflects on Hector's dissatisfaction with her (and her unwillingness to be a mother). Hector's journey takes him to three countries. On the plane to China, he meets a wealthy businessman, Edward (Stellan Skarsgard), who shows him how much happiness money can buy once they're in Shanghai. After a fleeting encounter with a beautiful Chinese student (Ming Zhao), Hector visits a monastery then is off to Africa. While there, he has some harrowing encounters, including a meeting with a drug kingpin (Jean Reno). Next stop: Los Angeles. There, he encounters old flame Agnes (Toni Collette) and is introduced to the "happiness author," Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer).
There are times when Hector and the Search for Happiness' homilies are trite and sound like they could have been cribbed from the inside of a Hallmark greeting card. However, the scenes involving Christopher Plummer's Professor Coreman have something interesting to say about the subject which is considerably more insightful than most of the movie's other "revelations." Putting aside a dark, violent scene in Africa, nothing in this movie is difficult to process. Those looking for something designed to stimulate the intellect aren't going to find it here.
While there's limited value in Hector's search for happiness and the dozen-plus "lessons" he learns about the emotional state, the film works nicely as a character piece. Hector is better realized than many of the one-dimensional comedic personalities Pegg has brought to the screen over the years, primarily because the actor takes the character seriously. Yes, there are some funny moments but Pegg never mugs for the camera or goes over-the-top. For those who think of him as just "the guy in British satires" or Scotty in Star Trek, his work here will be a revelation. Pegg is surrounded by an eclectic cast including the refined and beautiful Rosamund Pike, Stellan Skarsgard (grumpy and unsmiling), Jean Reno (baring his fangs in a wonderfully nasty turn), Toni Collette (genial and relaxed), and Christopher Plummer (smiling and unusually upbeat).
Overall, Hector and the Search for Happiness is intended to be uplifting and it achieves that aim. The ending is a little surprising because of the odd way in which it defies Hollywood conventions. Director Peter Chelsom shows a playful streak from time-to-time, explicitly connecting the title character with the fictional Tintin and having some of Hector's doodles spring to (animated) life. Although Hector visits three very different locales, the "fish out of water" element is downplayed by giving him guides in China and Africa (he doesn't need one in Los Angles, although one could argue that's the strangest environment of all). In the end, Hector's journey is probably more meaningful to him than it is to the viewer but he nevertheless makes for an appealing companion over a two-hour span.