What is the secret of happiness? Or, to be more precise, what is the secret of making a film about the secret of happiness? Not many films can pull it off. Films do a good job with misery, ecstasy, and boredom. But happiness proves tricky, and usually treacly. Though not everyone agrees, Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” came close to finding the secret for making a movie about the secret of happiness. Peter Chelsom’s “Hector and the Search for Happiness” tries hard, but fails. Miserably.
Ironically, Hector (Simon Pegg), the one searching for happiness, is in the business of finding happiness for other people. He’s a London psychiatrist with a seemingly perfect life. A nice office, a comfortable home, and a beautiful, loving wife (Rosamund Pike). So why is he not happy? In part, as a montage of whining clients indicates (Hector sketches unflattering pictures of them in his notebook as he listens), it’s because he’s not making his patients any happier. Although his indifference and contempt might explain that failure, he decides he must search the world and ask random people whether they are happy and why.
First he flies to Shanghai (probably because the Chinese have been generous to Western filmmakers who present a positive image of the country). He hooks up with the seemingly mean-spirited banker Edward (Stellan Skarsgård) who, like every other negative stereotype in the movie, turns out to be a really nice guy. He treats Hector to the local pleasure domes, gloriously photographed to look like a neon-tinted, 21st-century Emerald City. But money doesn’t buy happiness, and neither does infidelity. So he continues his quest, climbing the Himalayas to a Buddhist monastery.
The monks are cute — they have satellite dishes and Skype! But the secret of happiness? The head of the monastery joyously shows him multi-colored banners blowing in the wind. Hector doesn’t get it (the film returns to that image in its bathetic, campy conclusion), and moves on.
Africa! There, a physician friend heads a refugee hospital. Hector helps with sick and wounded children. Sad — but Hector makes them laugh! For the most part everyone is poor but happy — laughing and dancing and eating sweet potato stew. There are a few bad guys — a drug lord (Jean Reno), a warlord (Akin Omotoso) — but, you know what? They’re not so bad after all.
For those slow to learn these lessons, Hector keeps an illustrated (the drawings are sometimes animated) notebook in which he writes fortune cookie revelations such as “#12: happiness is feeling completely alive.” Thanks for the tip, Hector. Here’s one for you: movie misery rule #1: reducing happiness to sappy platitudes