“Hector and the Search for Happiness,” Reviewed: Safari So Good.

hector and the search for happiness (blog)

Simon Pegg in Hector and the Search for Happiness. (Relativity Media)

There are two kinds of people in the world: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty people, and Hector and the Search for Happiness (rated R) people. Both films feature milquetoasts who break free of lives of urban banality to find fulfillment through spur-of-the-moment decisions to embark on personally unprecedented globe-trotting adventures. Both films offer breathtaking scenery and remarkably convenient plot contrivances. But only one works. For me, it was Hector. And I’ll tell you why.

First, Simon Pegg > Ben Stiller. Pegg, the British comic actor whose what-am-I-doing-here everyman panic has brightened the new Star Trek and Mission: Impossible action franchises, is utterly credible as Hector, a London psychiatrist who examines his regimented, contented lifestyle and finds it lacking – well, the film calls it “happiness,” but really he’s bored. Sensing the same in his patients, he declares himself on a working holiday and books round-the-world travel plans in a haphazard attempt to find the passion he’s missing at home with his prim but fun pharma-rep girlfriend Clara (Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike).

In Mitty, Stiller’s glum affect felt awkward and stagy – it was hard to root for a guy who seemed unable to get out of his own way. But Pegg’s safari is engaging from the start, thanks mostly to a leading man who projects likable confusion rather than ominous portent.

Next, Peter Chelsom is Back. Chelsom, Hector’s director, is probably best known now for his weak 2001 John Cusack-Kate Beckinsale romcom Serendipity. But a decade earlier he debuted with Hear My Song, a positively delightful small-scale musical, and Funny Bones (1995), a low-budget English comedy that skillfully blended sweet and tart (and gave Jerry Lewis the late-career role he’d been waiting for). Those films showcased Chelsom’s ability to effervesce – to make intimate entertainments that bubbled with organic enthusiasm. So naturally, he followed them up with generic Hollywood projects like The Mighty and the English-language remake of Shall We Dance. Sigh.

His subject matter here has all the hallmarks of a big-budget schmaltzfest – Walter Mitty pretty much blazed that trail last year – and yet the film still finds lightness in its step, resisting the urge to oversentimentalize and showing Hector actually facing peril in Africa, getting chewed out by an old flame (Toni Collette) in the States, and encountering genuine indecision about what to do about his girlfriend back home. The stakes are real: Hector is a fish out of water, but unlike Stiller’s Mitty, he’s committed – he’s no tourist.

Finally, It’s Unpredictably Unpredictable. You can’t say a film is about the search for happiness and not have people leave the theater unhappy. But for all that, I didn’t expect Chelsom’s screenplay (co-written with Tinker Lindsay and Maria von Heland) to veer down the path it ultimately chose. Mitty’s denouement was pretty easy to spot halfway into the film, but Hector is faced with actual choices on his quest – and that gives this whimsical lark a touch of surprising heft.

Though it might inspire audience members to spend a few minutes exploring travel options at expedia.com, Hector and the Search for Happiness won’t change anyone’s life. It’s a well-made, warm-hearted comedy with a comfortable sense of its own limitations – and charm to spare. I wish there were more like this one.