As innocent a project as Hector and The Search for Happiness is, no one asked for a British spiritual remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Daydreams and bottlenecked ambitions find both characters in a tidy world of their own design that, like fireflies trapped too long in mason jars, have run out of oxygen and run on the humdrum fumes of expectation. Both of these uplifting films see a worker bee break free of their employment imprisonment to “find themselves” in a globetrotting journey around the world. Popping in to foreign landscapes and cultures, Hector, like Walter, discovers that what he was looking for was always right in front of his face. It’s about as stale as such a concept sounds.
Hector and the Search for Happiness begins presumptuously with Hector’s loving but equally routine-oriented girlfriend Clara, Rosamund Pike, cinching up his tie for his cushy psychiatry job. Brandishing the metaphorical noose, he’s ready to hear the suburban sob stories of his well-to-do clients. It’s ironic because his position is one of a guide out of the forest of psychological duress and yet he has a bushel of his own issues, GET IT?!
His client’s increasingly “first world problems” drive him increasingly nutty, until during one fated session, Hector bursts. He berates a crestfallen housewife, painting her sunburnt suburban lifestyle for the city dwellers paradise he believes it to be. You have no idea what pain is, he shouts. Happiness comes from within, he bombards. So why is he so goddamn empty?
Reeling from the monotony of life and unsure of his clinical effectiveness, Hector seeks to discover what exactly it is that everyone else has that he doesn’t, so installs a reversible hat on his shag of thinning ginger hair and purchases a one-way, business class ticket to China to uncover the recipe for “happiness”. Onboard, Hector acquaints himself Edward, played by Stellan Skarsgård, a filthy rich businessman who seems to have his own little secret to happiness who takes the unassuming Hector under his wing as the first of many “spiritual guides”. And so begins Hector’s titular search that’ll take him onward to a shanty village in Africa and the left coast of America before plopping him right back in London he came from.
The biggest ball in Hector’s court is star Simon Pegg, without whom the picture would be nothing shy of utter failure. With Pegg’s bumbling magnetism giving a knee up to the whole shebang, we at least have a hapless character that we don’t mind rooting for, even if the larger picture carrying him is clumsy and miles from groundbreaking.
Known for his wry, farcically humor, Pegg tries on a more somber cloth here and it isn’t necessarily ill-fitting. In fact, much of the power of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) came from the earnest emotionality of the Pegg-Frost dynamic. So while Pegg doesn’t suffer under the weight of a more dramatic script, he does seem a bit naked without an arsenal of comic beats.
Some have gone to the lengths of throwing the label “racist” at Hector and his titular search but it’s one I don’t believe fits. Racially insensitive, sure. Poor diversity casting, absolutely. Racist? not really. Sure, everyone of importance whom Hector encounters around the world happens to be white – the exception being his black warlord captors and the Asian prostitute he nearly falls for. And while such might contribute to certain worldview stereotypes, it suits a picture which genuinely attempts to take nationality into account. If it’s racist to depict foreign cultures as foreign then sure, Hector might fit the buck. As it stands, it’s just a little white-washed.
Because in the end, a perceived culture of racism doesn’t really have much bearing on the overall quality of the film. What really takes Hector and Pegg down a peg is it’s complete lack of anything new to say. It’s a film about accepting your lot in life, about celebrating the routine rather than raging against it. It’s a photocopy of a film from just last year. It’s a film about being, well, ordinary. So in the end, who can really be all that surprised that a film about how being ordinary is ok is only ordinary.