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Hector and the Search for Happiness
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by Daniel Kelly

"Maybe rent Walter Mitty instead."
2 stars

Only 8 months ago Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was the victim of snipey reviews and middling audience attendance. An admittedly imperfect frolic; Stiller’s vision still benefited from a lack of cynicism and some genuinely striking cinematography, with the lead actor applying an appreciative amount of focus upon the work’s inherently scattershot premise. Certainly, for me at least, it worked as a warm-hearted and well directed festive diversion, a welcomingly optimistic retreat into inspired flights of personal fancy. Maybe after viewing “Hector & The Search for Happiness” a few people will offer “Mitty” the reappraisal it deserves. Lead Simon Pegg may not quite match Stiller’s A-list standing, but he’s a recognisable and likable commodity, “Happiness” blasting him off on a cheaper, scrappily written voyage of spiritual awakenings. Unlike Stiller’s Mitty, Pegg’s character has a considerate and beautiful partner, fulfilling career prospects and a London apartment that wouldn’t look out of place in the hands of an aged rock-legend. However, with precious little motivation, the character opts to undertake a global tour in search of true happiness, because he obviously would have no understanding of such things. In fairness the film manages this strikingly offensive concept with more tact than expected, but it’s far from a rewarding journey.

Hector (Simon Pegg) is a slightly odd psychiatrist living a contented but unexciting existence in London. He’s presumably approaching his 40s, and with the onset of middle-age has come a despondency and uncertainty about his own habits. Fuelled by the need to improve both his professional obligation and personal wellbeing, Hector decides to undertake a global expedition, moving around numerous continents to embrace and uncover various cultural understandings of happiness. His girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) is confused to see him go, but even she can’t halt Hector’s thirst for answers.

Leaving aside the inherent sourness that accompanies Brit material preoccupied with middle-class woe, “Hector and the Search for Happiness” isn’t charming or particularly funny. Director Pete Chelsom (last seen guiding 2009’s “Hannah Montana: The Movie…) is betrayed by an unambitious script, but the director’s inability to shift tones or exercise palpable progression in his leading man is possibly even more concerning. “Happiness” sits in one dribbling gear for the duration - making a few ill-judged exceptions – pandering toward a national audience intent on consuming inoffensive schmaltz. Proceedings start on a twee note and build from there, occasionally wandering into areas such lightweight fare has no right to traverse. Encounters with an abused prostitute and African gangsters fail because they feel manipulative and out of place, blatant attempts to lend the naturally vacant premise some pseudo-weight. Truth be told, “Happiness” doesn’t deserve to inherit this social minutia for its own gain. I’m not going to endorse mediocre comedies in which Simon Pegg gamely makes a fool out of himself, but by the same token, if they must exist, so be it. However when said formula begins to crudely implant severe thematic content into its conditioning - with the sole aim of incurring an aura of displeasing profundity - well then yes, I’m going to take issue.

And what of Pegg? He’s no stranger to doing his talent a disservice, having racked up an impressive number of decidedly unimpressive credits since the mid-noughties. Sure, nobody can take “Hot Fuzz” or “Shaun of the Dead” away from him, but at this point audiences must smell something foul with the actor’s endgame, or at least his agent’s choice of script. His Hollywood credits have been infinitely more consistent, although he’s been largely relegated to vibrant supporting parts in California. Perhaps, that’s where he belongs. With “Hector” the performer is once again a likable but somewhat disinteresting goof, sans even the debauched flexibility of the otherwise equally repetitive Hugh Grant. I appreciated Pegg’s effort to inform change with last summer’s turn in the otherwise underwhelming “The World’s End”, but even then he seemed uncomfortable at task. “Happiness” represents the area to which he’s suited; a suggestion both depressing yet inevitable. He lacks the empathetic depth and register of Stiller’s work in “Mitty”, even if his well-intentioned comic chops provide the only real source of enjoyment here. I’ve been a fan of Pegg for a number of years, but his limitations are now beginning to creak, and films as deviously bland as “Happiness” won’t prolong his pursuit of high-profile work.

Cameos from Jean Reno, Toni Collette and Christopher Plummer (the picture’s late highlight) provide come cheap mirth, but can’t distract from the muddled odyssey Hector undergoes. There’s both a lack of purpose and urgency to the narrative, held together weakly by the titular figure’s journal in which he logs various discoveries. Some of these quasi-philosophical whisperings incur the sort of smile one might ascertain from a cat in peril poster, but they don’t amount to a tale of any crucial worth. Growth is recorded jaggedly across the languorous 114 minute runtime, forcing Hector through unsubtle hoops every so often. It’s a long viewing process, and one that for most of the runtime propels with little naturalism or dramatic logic.

With an estimated and forgivably restrained $16 million budget (about 20% of what Stiller’s lavish “Mitty” cost), the lack of visual punch is perhaps admissible, although Chelsom’s choice to film amidst such drab interiors frustrates. Ultimately the aesthetics of the film are excusable, and much like the film tolerable, when external contexts are considered. It’s a production dominated by limitations, nearly all of which have been boringly adhered to, but maybe in doing so the film-makers have rendered the egregious concept easier to digest. No matter, as “Hector and the Search for Happiness” warrants zero further discussion anyway. [C-]

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originally posted: 08/16/14 00:31:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  19-Sep-2014 (R)
  DVD: 03-Feb-2015


  DVD: 03-Feb-2015

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