The new Simon Pegg-starring comedy Hector and the Search for Happiness feels like the takeaway of a sleepy friend watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown with all of the critical hints of politics passing in one ear and whizzing out the other, leaving international husks of feel-goodery, mentions of food, faith, sex, and meaningless platitudes all around. It’s a dumb, privileged, and borderline insane movie about empty, feel good vibes. It’s Eat, Pray, Love for dudes minus everything that would either make that description cool to guys or palatable to anyone who isn’t a dude.
When psychologist Hector (Pegg) feels he’s a hypocrite for telling others how to be happier without knowing how to do the same for himself, he decides the path of a 22-year-old bachelors grad is the one for him, and backpacks across the globe to experience a more magical life. This journey goes to such exotic locations as Shanghai, Africa and the United States of America. Yes! The exotic United States of America! Armed with a sketchbook and zero semblance of a clue, Hector ventures the globe to learn enlightening concepts like ‘money can’t buy you happiness,’ ‘ignorance is bliss’ and other such important fridge magnet sentiments.
The global takeaways feel like secondhand knowhow that anyone with a television can figure out: that China has disagreeable ethics and deception that blanket from the highest class to the lowest, that Africa sure isn’t the safest place on earth, and that American drive around a lot. Oh! And that mountaintop monasteries are delightful quirky places, just like the cartoons say!
There are some good gags, but their repetition shows how much the script, direction, and performances are clinging to their value. There’s a ton of schmaltz (oy the schmaltz), so if you have any allergy to you’ll break out in hives. The truly sympathetic moments feel artificially injected and end almost as soon as they begin, such as an airplane encounter with a dying traveller. This is Peter Chelsom’s first film since 2009’s Hannah Montana: The Movie (which explains why some scenes feel better suited for a direct-to-DVD children’s film), and one so tone deaf and out of touch with reality that when Hector is taken prisoner by African drug peddlers (which is an actual plot point that I wish I was making up) who then laugh at his precious notebook of discoveries, you wonder if it was intended that the audience might find themselves identifying with the villains.
As white, male, privileged, and numb to the outside world as a journey can get (including aspirations for overseas sex, since his girlfriend, played by Rosamund Pike, gives him a hall pass that he can’t go 24 hours before trying to cash) Hector’s Happiness Safari portrays a world where the most obvious emotional ideas are complete mysteries to a well paid, profession feelings expert and sound more hollow than a teenager’s Tumblr page. And it does it all while belittling a global culture here and there along the way.
Except Los Angeles. Los Angeles is mostly driving scenes, which I guess is somewhat accurate.