“Hector and the Search for Happiness doesn’t work on all fronts; it’s a strangely honest film about a subject begging for satirical treatment.”
It’s so strange seeing actor Simon Pegg in a film as serious as Hector and the Search for Happiness, even when considering that the film has parts that are embellished and entirely overblown in logic. Pegg is known for his sort of smarmy, sarcastic presence in recent comedic greats like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, all of which part of the famous “Cornetto Trilogy,” and his ability to assimilate to the wildly ridiculous with a great sense of charm and placement, as if he’s accustomed and used to being in such asinine situations. With Hector and the Search for Happiness, I’m assuming everything within the confines of the film’s narrative are to be taken seriously and not with a satirical mindset, making the more exaggerated parts of the film even more baffling since we’re essentially supposed to take the film’s messages and focus as serious.
Right off the bat, I stated the film’s greatest flaw, which is an identity crisis within itself, as it clearly finds enjoyment in taking a well-meaning character and throwing him into outlandish situational occurrences all in the name of goofy comedy but finding some sort of narrative misdirection when it comes to passing off its themes as genuine. The film has been so goofy and unbelievable for so long that when it cements its morals about happiness and one’s pursuit of such a state, it inevitably becomes schmaltzy and, dare I say, a tad trite.
The film centers around Hector (Simon Pegg), a therapist living an unremarkable, predictable existence, with his girlfriend Clara (Gone Girl‘s Rosamund Pike). He confesses to her one night that he feels like a quack, having not lived his life in the fabled way of taking risks or doing anything daring, yet offering advice and guidance to patience who have presumably done more than he ever has. After much contemplation and uncertainty, Hector packs up one day and tells Clara he will be embarking on a globetrotting adventure, gathering research about what the gray idea of “happiness” means to a wide variety of different people from contrasting walks of life. He flies to places like China and Africa to garner ideas worth exploration, but, in addition to his research, winds up stumbling into messy circumstances, some testing his own conception of happiness and love and others putting his life into serious danger.
This kind of material begs a satirical focus or something along the lines of a wink and a nudge for the sake of silliness. The idea of “finding happiness” and being fulfilled, while a vital human concept, is a hard topic to formulate and mold on to film in a way that we can take seriously. Many of us are subconsciously trained not to even bat an eye at the ridiculous titles for self-help books or regard their contents with a sneer and an affirmation of one’s own personal abilities. However, Hector and the Search for Happiness is brave enough to approach this topic in a mostly-serious manner, making for some peculiar thematic summations and schmaltzy turns.
However, the film works on a more commendable level thanks to the work of Pegg, who brings new meaning to the word “eccentric” with his Hector character. Pegg, working with a screenplay penned by a trio of writers (director Peter Chelsom, Tinker Lindsay, and Maria von Heland) who just love to throw their man character into a whirlwind of trouble, has enough charisma and personality to carry a questionably sincere film like this on his back and make it almost entirely a one-man show.
With that, Hector and the Search for Happiness doesn’t work on all fronts; it’s a strangely honest film about a subject begging for satirical treatment. To its favor, the film is not emotionally manipulative nor is it too boring for long periods of time, thanks to a narrative to flows with the intensity to keep up with a performer like Pegg, but it begs justification for its own existence. If not a satire, was this supposed to be a motivating piece of self-help or a subversion of it? For a film about affirming life and seizing the day, it leaves one with more questions than answers.