A good alternate title for the new Simon Pegg motivational movie would be “Hector and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Both movies feature a man in existential crisis, on a journey to find the missing puzzle piece that will improve their lives. Both stories are thick slices of pop psychology, but appealing casts buoy both.
Hector (Pegg) is a psychologist with a tidy uneventful existence. He shares his predictable and safe life with Clara (Rosamund Pike), an ad agency writer who creates names for pharmaceuticals. They chug along happily until one day Hector snaps and berates one of his patients for not being satisfied with her comfortable life. He set out on an archeological dig of sorts, to discover what happiness means to people. Leaving Clara behind he hits the road as the Indiana Jones of Happiness. First stop China.
Echoes of “Eat Pray Love” reverberate in each of Hector’s layovers. From China to Africa to Los Angeles he collects people and theories of happiness—“My secret of happiness is never asking myself if I’m happy,” says a millionaire (Stellan Skarsgård) in China—making notes in his diary along the way.
The movie screams WHIMSY in capital letters from its opening scene of Hector and a dog soaring above the earth in a World War II RAF bi-plane, to the title font to Hector’s diary drawings that come to life to illustrate the story. The presence of Pegg doesn’t dismiss fears of oppressive whimsy either, as he embraces the story’s quirky tone with a performance that feels like the acting 101 textbook definition of repressed British man, all shy glances and apologetic fumbling.
But then, despite the movie’s somewhat smug tone regarding Hector’s ability to fly around the world and expropriate ideology from people he then leaves behind, and the outdated notion that Clara can’t be happy until she has a child, the movie shifts from twee to a slightly less awkward form of twee. When it drops the pop psychology and focuses on Hector and Clara, it works. He’s still an over privileged prat stumbling around the world in search of an elusive concept, but when the movie switches from magic realism to just plain old realism and the floodgates open for him it is hard not to forgive him the journey.
“Hector and the Search for Happiness” feels like Michel Gondry Lite, but when it and Pegg let the whimsy go, it can be an affecting story.