Happiness means steering clear of “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” A supremely irritating marriage of picture-postcard exoticism and motivational uplift, this misguided comedy-drama tells the story of a British therapist who upends his comfortable lifestyle and travels the world looking for the secret to inner joy — like an “Eat Pray Love” remake for men with too much time, money and existential ennui on their hands. Trite, flat-footed, culturally insensitive, and sagging under the weight of more than 25 credited producers, Peter Chelsom’s film will need every ounce of charm and cachet it can wring from star Simon Pegg to achieve box office traction. Following an Aug. 15 U.K. release (in a version that runs six minutes longer, with negligible differences) and a North American launch at Toronto, it begins a Stateside platform release Sept. 19 through Relativity Media.
Attempting to reproduce the simple, childlike prose style of Francois Lelord’s popular source novel, an arch storybook narrator introduces us to Hector (Pegg), a London-based shrink who leads a perfectly comfortable, orderly and meaningless life. He spends his days doodling in a notebook while pretending to listen to his patients’ insipid ramblings. At home, his every need is tended to by his beautiful girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike), a marketer whose job involves coming up with clever names for pharmaceuticals. As the film takes pains to remind us, the two have no children — a condition that is clearly meant to underscore the emotional sterility of their existence. It’s not long before Hector snaps and decides he needs to make some major life changes if he hopes to do his patients (or himself) any good, and so he embarks on a solo voyage abroad, leaving things with Clara on an inconclusive note as he seeks that elusive Holy Grail called happiness.
Hector’s first stop is China, where a wealthy businessman (Stellan Skarsgard) gives him a taste of Shanghai nightlife, and where he immediately falls for a gorgeous local (Ming Zhao), only to have his dreams dashed when she turns out to be a prostitute with one hell of a mean pimp. (“Happiness means not knowing the whole story,” he scribbles sadly in his notebook.) After hanging for a while with a wise old mountain monk (Togo Igawa), it’s off to reconnect with an old friend (Barry Atsma) doing humanitarian work in Africa, where Hector gets kidnapped by thugs, helps a drug dealer (Jean Reno) get in touch with his conscience, and receives a touching lesson in gay tolerance. (“Happiness means being loved for who you are,” he scribbles thoughtfully in his notebook.) Later, he’ll minister to a sweet, cancer-stricken woman who coughs up two uplifting slogans of her own — “People who are afraid of death are afraid of life” and “Listening is loving” — before being dragged away to expire offscreen.
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Elsewhere on his journey, Hector talks to animals, learns to dance, and questions anyone who will give him the time of day (which is unfortunately a lot of people) about their views on happiness. Eventually he arrives in Los Angeles, where he settles some unfinished business with an old flame (Toni Collette) and participates in a brain study for a leading happiness researcher (Christopher Plummer), triggering a dramatic climax that plays like nothing short of an emotional diarrhea explosion. If the words “feeling all the feels” have ever escaped your lips, you might well be moved to tears.
An erratic director who most recently helmed 2009’s “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and the 2004 remake of “Shall We Dance,” Chelsom (who co-wrote the script with Maria von Heland and Tinker Lindsay) has attempted to inject some visual life into Lelord’s source material — mainly by plastering Hector’s words of wisdom in capital letters across the screen and animating the cute drawings in his notebook. Far from making the movie feel sweet and disarming, however, these relentlessly twee devices merely compound the cluelessness of the drive-by cultural stereotyping on display: Shanghai is depicted as a cosmopolitan blur of night-market delicacies and Mandarin pop, while the entire African continent is reduced to a village packed with exuberant revelers and a few glimpses of exotic wildlife. (The handsome cinematography is by d.p. Kolja Brandt.)
It takes a particularly tone-deaf movie to begin with an ostensible critique of bourgeois white-male privilege, only to wind up reaffirming it in every particular, but that’s the trap that “Hector and the Search for Happiness” stumbles into again and again: Every non-Westerner Hector encounters is either a simple-minded saint or a pitiable lost soul, trotted out for a few beats to impart a life lesson or receive one. It’s hardly the ideal way to use Pegg, a reliably brilliant comic actor who manages a few engaging moments here, but never gets a grip on a character who must transform without warning into a bumbling idiot, a tantrum thrower, a sensitive caretaker or an emotionally stunted man-child, depending on the requirements of an individual scene.
In the end, though, it’s Pike (reteaming with Pegg after last year’s infinitely superior “The World’s End”) who elicits the most sympathy in the thankless role of Hector’s long-suffering significant other. Of all the bad ideas floating around in this casually racist/sexist claptrap, perhaps the most noxious is the notion that true fulfillment means a supportive wife with a bun in the oven, as Clara’s own happiness hinges on her belated realization that until she’s a mother, she’s nothing. Incidentally, Pike will next be seen in the much-anticipated “Gone Girl,” in which she plays a woman stuck in an increasingly oppressive marriage, but it’s hard to imagine a film in which this superb actress could possibly look more mistreated, marginalized and in need of an escape plan than this one.