Everyone has his or her own unique perception of what it means to find "happiness," and while that near-infinite spectrum alone makes defining that word elusive, the fact remains that there's rarely any doubt when we fail to achieve it. In director Peter Chelsom's whimsical adventure Hector and the Search for Happiness, an eccentric psychiatrist embarks on an epic journey to find his own unique definition of happiness. In short, it's precisely the kind of unabashedly optimistic, life-affirming film that feels tailor-made for moviegoers weary of the drab futurism and increasingly dour comic-book escapism that's come to dominate the box office; at the same time, it's bound to have cynical critics straining their snark muscles in dismissive scorn.
Hector (Simon Pegg) is an esteemed psychiatrist whose relationship with his career-driven girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) is one of total predictability. This arrangement offers him a reassuring sense of comfort and security for a while, but in time he begins to realize that he might not be getting the most out of life, and starts to question what it is that makes people genuinely happy. When Hector's increasing irritability begins to threaten his relationships with his patients, he decides to take a sabbatical and get out of his comfort zone. In doing so, he believes he can gain greater insight into his own needs, as well as the needs of others. Discomforted by his decision, yet supportive of his yearning for greater life experience, Clara wishes Hector well as she sends him on the first leg of his globe-trotting adventure. And what an adventure it is: From his initial stop in Shanghai, where wealthy financier Edward (Stellan Skarsgård) showers him with the spoils of affluence, to his visit with Tibetan monks, his turbulent trip through Africa, and his attempt to find closure with a past romance in L.A., Hector gradually discovers the answer to his existential question and so much more.
Yes, as you may have gathered, screenwriters Chelsom, Maria von Heland, and Tinker Lindsay (adapting a novel by François Lelord) occasionally paint in broad strokes here -- especially during Hector's time in Africa -- and it could be argued that such a privileged man is merely feeding his own ego by embarking on such a grand adventure. But that's neglecting two very critical points that it pays to keep in mind: First, this is a movie, an art form that is constructed on the concept of exaggeration; second, happiness is subjective, which means that -- shock of all shocks -- successful, wealthy people can be unhappy too. Sure, as Edward points out early on, money can most certainly put you in a better position to be "happy." Yet for those who find joy in freedom, the material objects that so frequently go along with wealth can become more a burden than a blessing.
But while those early scenes with Hector and Edward enjoying a lavish dinner and expensive drinks in China will certainly strike some as shallow, Chelsom and his co-writers are all about contrast, and it isn't long before our adventuresome protagonist is locked in a makeshift dungeon and sharing his travel candy with the rats. Once again, this is where it pays to remember that Hector and the Search for Happiness is a hyperbolic account of one man's quest for meaning. If the whimsical animated interludes that help to segment the story (and that recall the DIY aesthetics of Michel Gondry) aren't enough to drive that point home, it may be time to get out of your own comfort zone -- at least cinematically speaking -- for a bit.
Ever since his breakout role in Shaun of the Dead, Pegg has established a reliable onscreen persona as a kindhearted eccentric. That trend continues in Hector and the Search for Happiness, with the added difference being the titular character's increasing lack of contentment with that lifestyle. It's a more mature take on his familiar persona, and as we see Hector gradually come to realize that discomfort doesn't exactly equate with unhappiness (as he originally seemed to assume), we start to see an actor capable of greater range than his biggest roles might imply. Pike, having previously appeared alongside Pegg in The World's End, likewise succeeds in giving her character a greater emotional dynamic than initial appearances would suggest. The supporting cast, populated by such capable talents as Skarsgård, Jean Reno, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer, all help to add welcome color to Hector's world, even if -- in the case of Skarsgård and Reno in particular -- they exist for little reason other than to guide him along the way.
By the time Hector does finally find the meaning of happiness (shame on you if you thought he wouldn't), chances are cynics will have already written the film off. This movie is hardly for them. Rather, it's for the people who may have been feeling down in the dumps when they bought the ticket, and realize that those elusive moments Hector experiences still have value, even if they exist solely on the silver screen.