Simon Pegg is Hector, a psychiatrist who travels the world researching happiness in this comedy-drama adaptation of a French novel.
Hector lives a very orderly life in London. He treats patients with absurdly first-world problems, and lives with Clara (Rosamund Pike); who creates enticing names for pharmaceutical products. But is it all too orderly? Hector decides to go on a journey of enlightenment; partying with wealthy businessman Edward (Stellan Skarsgard) in Shanghai, praying with a wise monk (Togo Igawa) in Tibet, working with old medical school friend Michael (Barry Atsma) and clashing with Columbian drug-lord Diego (Jean Reno) in central Africa, before finally arriving in California to talk with the pioneering Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer). And with Coreman’s research assistant Agnes (Toni Collette) aka The One Who Got Away… Clara is rightly suspicious that Hector’s entire trip is an excuse to reconnect with Agnes, but the trip itself actually does teach Hector some hard lessons about life and, yes, happiness.
Director Peter Chelsom has had an odd career (Funny Bones and Serendipity?), and this is another curious entry. Hector and the Search for Happinessbears all the marks of a Europudding; a fantastic amount of international producers, a multinational cast, a screenplay by Swede Maria von Heland, rewritten by Chelsom himself with Tinker Lindsay, all adapted from Francois Lelord’s novel; and yet it actually almost works. Hector’s journey is very naive. The comedy of Hector’s clumsiness is quite forced, and yet there is a very nice trick with a running gag which I won’t spoil. But, though it works, it’s almost a synecdoche for the film: Hector works best when it is serious, but most of the time it’s whimsical. Hector’s infatuation with Shanghai student Ying Li (Ming Zhao) is nicely undercut, but whimsy keeps intruding and preventing true substance.
Sure, there’s some quite amusing Wes Andersonish FX fun with a decrepit plane but the film’s standout sequence is when Hector tends to an ill woman on his flight to LA, because Pegg gets to play quiet empathy. Collette is fantastically cast as the woman worth waiting for, and her harshness is perfectly judged. As her mentor Plummer rightly remarks Hector is not responding to stimuli like a grown man, so how can he ever expect to be happy? The film itself, however, when it comes to articulate its grown-up wisdom promotes a facile viewpoint: change, for its own sake, guarantees happiness. Why is a comfortable routine ispo facto bad though? Do people really like constant change? As a rigid guiding principle it seems to say ‘That was great, we really enjoyed it, now let’s not never do that again.’
Hector and the Search for Happiness is a curious film. It doesn’t quite work as a comedy-drama, but it is consistently engaging throughout (not least because of its colourful cast) with some memorable moments.