“Hector and the Search for Happiness,” is an uplifting, life affirming travel comedy in a similar vein to Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” from last year. Both revolve around males who live tidy but unsatisfying lives and want a little more excitement. In “Mitty,” the daydreamer Walter (Stiller) is a lowly and lonely picture archives worker at Time magazine who embarks on a grand adventure around the world to retrieve a missing photo. In “Hector,” Hector (Simon Pegg) is a dissatisfied psychiatrist who feels like he doesn’t have enough life experience to give his clients any real advice on how to be happy, so he embarks on a global journey to find out the meaning of happiness.
“Hector” is a positive movie, something that’s scarce in the current cinema landscape. It may get you in the mood to travel but for all its globe trotting it’s not all that enlightening and it builds to a fairly obvious and simple outcome. In the long run, both “Hector” and “Mitty” feel outdated and stale instead of original and lively.
A problem “Hector” (directed by Peter Chelsom and based on the book by Francois Lelord) faces early on is that Hector’s life—as it is before he goes on his journey—doesn’t seem all that bad. He makes good money, he has time for hobbies such as flying remote control airplanes in the park and he has a loving, supportive girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) who practically takes care of him. And yet he still complains about being unhappy. There’s not much at stake here. There’s not much to make the audience very sympathetic towards him and his problems.
And so when he goes gallivanting off to China, Africa and finally Los Angeles—to meet up with an old flame played by Toni Collette—it feels like a really selfish act. We’d all like to just get away and travel around the world but not all of us have the time and high paying jobs like Hector. Plus, what about Hector’s patients? You’re not a very good psychiatrist if you decide, out of the blue, to travel around the world for no set amount of time. All of this wouldn’t be as big a deal if the movie was purely comedy but while it does feature plenty of goofy moments, I’m not sure Chelsom is going strictly for comedy.
This is the next major issue that “Hector” suffers from. Tonally, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. Sometimes it plays like a wacky travel comedy, containing annoying quirky comedy movie gimmicks--the drawings in Hector’s notebook he brings with him become animated for some reason-- while at other times it plays like a sappy, heavy-handed light drama about self-discovery. The scenes featuring Hector interviewing various people along his journey—Monks in a Chinese monastery, a businessman played by Stellan Skarsgard whose idea of happiness is money, a gangster played by Jean Reno in Africa—asking them to define happiness, begin to feel preachy, tedious and repetitive. Surprise! Happiness is comprised of many things.
Not only that, the movie inserts peculiar bursts of intense drama, as when Hector is taken hostage by rebels in Africa. This appears to be the only serious conflict in the entire movie and yet Chelsom treats it like it’s no big deal. Through a stroke of luck Hector is released and he continues traveling. Now, had Chelsom used this incident as a way to snap Hector back into reality and make him realize that his old life may have been mundane and unadventurous but it’s better than being kidnapped, “Hector” might have been worthwhile. But no, as Hector resumes his travels, the movie goes back to its wacky and sappy ways. I’m sorry but being kidnapped isn’t something you just shake off; intense brutal scenes of abduction don’t gel with quirky notebook animations. Maybe that’s just me.
What’s most frustrating about the movie though is that for all the traveling Hector does and all the stuff he learns about the subject of happiness it ends on a rather trite and underwhelming note. I won’t spoil anything but it involves, of all things, love. The movie is supposed to be an exploration of happiness and yet it decides to go for a simple, cliché romantic-comedy ending.
Fortunately, the movie has Pegg, who’s in top form as always. The forty four year old English actor plays the benevolent, “head in the clouds” kind of guy with ease and his Hector is certainly a more engaging protagonist than Stiller’s mopey, timid Walter in “Walter Mitty.” Pegg is the only thing that gives “Hector” any kind of life. Without him it would be nearly unwatchable.