Simon Pegg has always been more like a cartoon than a real boy. He's one part Charlie Brown to two parts Tintin, a round-faced runt who can channel both childlike depression and old-fashioned cowlicked pluck. In Pegg's new film, Hector and the Search for Happiness, director Peter Chelsom simply allows him to be himself, and it fits.
Hector is a psychiatrist quietly churning with adult-onset anxiety. He looks and acts mature — he downs wheatgrass shots every morning — but inside he's still a kid. A neurobiologist (Christopher Plummer) examining Hector's brain grumbles, "These are not the emotions of a grown man." Hector's girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike), tries cheerfully to ignore his inability to propose. When she coos, "Promise me you'll never change," it's not because she's 100 percent happy, but because at least stasis is next door to stability.
The solution? On a whim, Hector decides to make like Hergé and travel the world. (He's already doing it in his dreams, as in an opening scene where he flies a biplane with a Boxer in the rear wearing wee dog-size goggles.) He tells Clara he wants to write a book about happiness, but Pike plays the scene with just enough buried fear that we know that she knows he's going off the rails, long before Hector himself has a clue. Still, she buys him a journal and kisses him goodbye, and then he and the movie are off on a scattershot adventure that, as scattershot adventures are wont to do, won't make sense until it's over.
If you think Hector's happiness book sounds bound for the Target discount bin, you're not far off. From what we see of it, it's mainly sketches and bullet points. (No. 4: Happiness could be the freedom to love more than one woman at the same time. No. 6: Avoiding unhappiness is not the road to happiness.) Chelsom and his screenwriters, working off the original French novel by François Lelord, structure it like a book of fables. On the road, Hector meets archetypes, not people. There's the rich businessman in China, played by Stellan Skarsgård, who's forced to deliver lines like, "Whoever says money can't buy happiness — fuck you!" There's a Buddhist monk in the mountains, a violent third-world criminal (Jean Reno), a beatific cancer patient on an airplane and, in California, Hector's old college girlfriend (Toni Collette), whom he hasn't quite gotten over.
Each character has a personal quirk to disguise the fact that they're utilitarian props, which feels like the exaggerated extension of the way a navel-gazing Westerner sees the world. The monk is into Skype; the criminal dotes on his wife. But we never forget that each exists merely to teach Hector a Very Important Thing, even if we'd rather ditch our lead's naive quest and spend more time with the forever-fascinating Skarsgård, who seems to be living in a strange and sexy Shanghai thriller.
It's almost doubly disappointing that Chelsom ditches Skarsgård to cut to a snowy Sherpa hike sequence that's practically shot-for-shot the same as the one in Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, another film about an uptight white man who searches for his soul in Asia. (Guys, really? Finding yourself in China is so 1834.) The only destination more patronizing is Africa, so naturally Hector heads there, too. By the time Hector lands in Los Angeles, we're wondering if the city's uncivilized reputation is part of the joke.
But Hector and the Search for Happiness isn't trying to be funny. It's unfashionably earnest, the sort of dopey pound mutt you feel guilty for not showering with love. How often does a film actually try to mean something? (Besides, of course, the shallow Oscar-bait dramas that every year remind us that racism and poverty and terrible parenting are all bad.) Hector is trying to say something true about a generation of quietly dissatisfied demi-adults who are terrified to take emotional risks. We already have lots of movies about man-children, but most of those applaud their heroes for staying true to themselves and, er, smoking mad weed. Hector takes its hero to task, even though on the surface he's more grown up than the rest of the Seth Rogens on our screens. He already owns a suit and tie — the change he needs must come from within.
This isn't groundbreaking. It doesn't even have Walter Mitty's stunning cinematography and sly humor. Yet at least Chelsom, like his leading man, is willing to take risks. Halfway through, there's a harrowing sequence where Hector comes within seconds of being murdered. (If it were later in the film, it'd pack even more of a wallop, but with at least 40 minutes to go in the running time, we know better than to panic.) That moment feels a million miles away from Hector's goofy opening plane fantasy, and the movie can't quite straddle the two tones. But at least it left its comfort zone and tried. Sometimes, for people and for picture-shows, that's as much as we can ask.