Running Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Stars: Toni Collette, Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, Christopher Plummer, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård
Director: Peter Chelsom
If ever a movie deserved a "Heart in the Right Place" award, it's this one: Hector and the Search for Happiness desperately wants to be both profound and whimsical, compelling and diverting.
Those aspirations may be impossible to reconcile — like trying to fit jigsaw-puzzle pieces onto Lego bricks — but everyone here tries so hard to make it work you can't help achieving at least moderate happiness.
Simon Pegg, impish as ever, plays Hector, a successful London shrink beloved by his patients and his beautiful, patient girlfriend (Rosamund Pike, also arriving this week as the lead in Gone Girl). But he's got this nagging sense of unhappiness, so Hector shuts down the office, bids his gal an uncertain cheerio and takes off on a worldwide research trip to find out what makes others happy.
Pegg would undoubtedly be a boon travel companion in real life. His Hector is funny and engaging, making it easy for him to ingratiate himself with any number of rather broadly drawn strangers. In Shanghai he meets an international businessman who thinks happiness comes in the form of a) money and b) a local hooker. Next he heads to Tibet, where a monk offers some suspiciously Karate Kid-sounding insights about the happiness within. And in Africa he meets up with an old pal, a doctor who has found happiness in providing health care to villagers (and in accepting the fact that he is gay). A local woman invites Hector to a raucous family dinner, after which he is kidnapped by a regional warlord and beaten to a pulp.
Wait a minute — kidnapped and brutalized?! Yup — and thrown into a rat-infested cell for bad measure, where he's forced to play Russian roulette.
At this point I turned around to face the projection booth, ready to yell that the reels had been switched: "Somebody get me out of this Martin Scorsese flick!"
But no, that was still our happiness-hunting Hector up there, cowering at the nasty-business end of a gun barrel, sobbing and pleading for his miserable life. The switcheroo from sweet comedy to brain-boiling drama gave me a severe case of tone-shift whiplash.
It's no spoiler to say that Hector extricates himself from that mess through a contrived turn of events, and suddenly we're back in Candyland. Then off he goes on his merry way, having learned that happiness is not just a warm puppy, but also being rescued from the savage clutches of a homicidal maniac.
Hector absorbs many more such obvious lessons. By the time he returns to London, his final epiphany will set ruby slippers clicking in your head: "There's no place like home."
Still, there's no denying Pegg's ever-delightful presence. The people he meets are fun company (except for that guy with the gat), and aside from that neck-snapping mood change in the middle, director Peter Chelsom does a nice job of driving the action forward with his colorful use of exotic locales.If only Hector had learned his easy lessons in slightly edgier fashion — and that tough lesson in a less-bloodcurdling way — we might complete his search as happily as he does.
Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.
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