Hector (Simon Pegg) is a psychiatrist whose life is ordered and organised to a precise pinnacle by himself, his job, and his loving, mothering girlfriend (Rosamund Pike). His life is perfectly content and adequate, but Hector begins to wonder whether he is really happy and, indeed, whether any of us are. Thus begins his quest to travel the world, making notes on what makes people happy and whether they consider themselves to be so.
I was hoping that the film might be more level-headed, less preachy and more meaningful than something like Eat Pray Love, but it wasn’t. When Hector decides to go off on his journey, he goes through episodic stages of meeting a rich man, a wise man, a married woman, et cetera, and this is all it really feels like. The film progresses at a gentle and appropriate pace, but it does so in this manner: ‘Insert trip to China, Insert scene with Buddhist monk, Insert scene with token African care workers in token African country before meeting token African bandits and token drug dealer.’
All the while, Hector is making simplistic, ambiguous or downright trivial notes in his scrapbook, which are repeated in the voiceover from Pegg and scrawled across the screen in a font that resembles handwriting, just in case we missed it. The journey does begin quite well, with Hector correcting his statements or crossing them out entirely when he finds they are, in fact, completely fatuous, but the film then loses this more enlightened and ironic edge and instead decides to become just another empty, ‘self-help’ film.
But wait – no, it doesn’t – then it decides it does have something worth saying so it’s going to become a sentimental drama about Hector coming to a major point in his life where he has to make a major decision concerning his relationship. So it becomes a kind of romantic drama? Yes… but also there’s some stuff about Hector’s childhood dog for some reason and references to the fact that Hector wants to find out whether he can actually be happy or whether he’s ever been happy or whether he deserves to be happy or wants to be happy or blah, blah, blah.
It would be more forgivable if the self-aware, jokey tone of the film had remained consistent, but this gets washed away by everything else and when it does return, it feels random and out of place.
The cast, however, are brilliant. Pegg is on top form and remains a wily and endearing lead. His relationship with Pike is totally convincing – no doubt helped by their real-life friendship and the fact that she is excellent, bringing a genuine warmth and charm to an otherwise facile and vacuous role. There are also strong performances from the supporting cast (including Stellan Skarsgård, Jean Reno, and Christopher Plummer), who lift their characters from their 2-D shells with poise and dignity.
Even this, though, is not enough when the film begins to make simplistic racial generalisations and sketchy titbits of worldly advice you could get on a cat poster (as the ultimately less contrived and more life-affirming Lego Movie pointed out). There are also massive plot leads that go nowhere, like a storyline involving a Chinese prostitute that could have real potential literally disappearing, leaving Hector to learn that he can’t go through with his planned infidelity and that some women are real tricksters,
the film begins to make simplistic racial generalisations and sketchy titbits of worldly advice you could get on a cat poster
This is one of the many reasons why Hector is unlikeable and his journey and his conclusions akin to some annoying prick who’s just come off their gap year inter-railing to discover themselves and had such an amazing time. They don’t grow as people and what they experience is nothing more than a tourist placebo of self-discovery – just like Hector’s.
The Search For Happiness does have a strong and amiable cast, but is ultimately proof that if you ask a trite question, you get a trite answer.