Thirteen years ago this month, director Peter Chelsom brought movie audiences Serendipity, a clever rom com that imbued its storyline with magic and fun, making it one of this critic’s favorite films. Now, the veteran English filmmaker has created another whimsical production, the Simon Pegg starring Hector and the Search for Happiness. Like Serendipity, it’s the type of movie that needs a delicate touch to rescue it from cloying sentimentality; this time, it’s a trap Chelsom doesn’t quite avoid.
The titular psychiatrist is played effortlessly by Simon Pegg, who’s become something of a cult figure thanks to his roles in Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy” and as Scotty in the J.J. Abrams Star Treks. Pegg’s comedic instincts have always been rooted in naturalistic responses to situations both mundane and outlandish, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s equally adept at handling Happiness’ drama and its broad comedy. His character embarks on his quest and winds up on a global tour of such far flung locations as China, Africa, and Los Angeles, USA. Amelie-esque flourishes like animations of Hector’s sketches, onscreen platitudes about happiness (“Happiness is…”), and a puppet show-like flight sequence keep things lively but often veer towards the overly precious. There’s also a semi-exploitative vibe in the use of locations: look how bright and flashy China is! Africa is really poor, but the locals make awesome sweet potato stew and know how to party! Plus, lions! A tear jerking interlude involving Hector and a terminally ill plane passenger will move all but the most hard-hearted, but it’s as contrived as a bad ER episode. (Side note: the script also builds up an intriguing love interest for Hector who vanishes way too abruptly.)
It’s really a testament to the actors that this movie works in spite of such clichéd trappings. Pegg is surrounded by a uniformly fine cast, including Rosamund Pike as his supportive but insecure girlfriend Clara; Stellan Skarsgard as a repressed businessman; a surprise actress as the One Who Got Away whom Pegg visits in LA (she’s the type who elevates anything she appears in); and Christopher Plummer as a happiness guru—the kind of role the veteran performer can play in his sleep. By the end, you really feel invested in Hector’s emotional journey. That goes a long way towards overcoming the picture’s shortcomings. It’s a bit of a trifle, maybe, but one I liked.
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