As I exit the theater, déjà vu sets in. Haven’t I seen this film before? Someone who realizes their perfect life isn’t so perfect and sets out on a life-changing journey across unchartered lands to find their true selves…or something like that. Yeah, but it was a pretty woman and she liked food. So is this Eat Pray Love sans the divorce? Well as a matter of fact, yes it is.
Hector (Simon Pegg) is a London psychiatrist. His life is organized, tidy. He has a successful career and a girlfriend who looks after all his needs; he claims to be satisfied. Increasingly though, Hector wonders if being satisfied equals being happy. He begins to find his patient’s so-called problems annoying and bemoans his lack of friends. He questions his life. Is he is a fraud who is just going through the motions? Is his predictable life too predictable? After an emotional meltdown, Hector tells his girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike), that he needs to get away and has hatched a plan to conduct research on happiness. After all, how can he give advice to his patients about how to be happy when he himself, is not? Clara, unsure and slightly skeptical, seems determined to be the perfect girlfriend who supports her man. Hector soon embarks on his journey, encountering somewhat fantastical episodes of life and death while he tries to connect to cultures outside of his own.
Director and co-screenwriter Peter Chelsom who didn’t blaze any trails with his last film Hannah Montana: The Movie, this time around offers a much more substantial but, in the end, disappointing film. On the positive side, Chelsom guides his cast into solid performances and there are some truly picturesque moments that could easily be postcard material thanks to cinematographer Kolja Brandt. Of the many negatives, this is a film where the screenwriters (Maria von Heland and Tinker Lindsay in addition to Chelsom) shun the adage, ‘show, don’t tell the audience.' Instead of giving the audience leeway to find their own nuggets of wisdom and the freedom to come to its own conclusions, Hector and the Search for Happiness reads like a “How To” guide that simply serves up packaged answers about how to be happy. It’s also apparent as they shape Hector’s character. More than once he’s called eccentric, but we don’t see much to support this opinion and his appalling behavior as a western styled tourist, who embarrasses himself at any turn, certainly negates any such claim. Even more troubling, is that just as Hector finds it difficult to feel empathy for his affluent patients and their “problems,” it’s hard to feel much empathy for Hector. Well to do, with a devoted girlfriend and an aspiring career, his discontent reeks of first world problems. So while the filmmakers may hope the audience applauds his soul-searching efforts, they provide little to make us care about his dissatisfaction and it only gets worse throughout his travels. With seemingly no itinerary, he begins with a nauseating self-indulgent trek across China. A foray to some unspecified place in Africa, where he helps in a village clinic, is the only bright spot where we hope he may finally begin to understand the desperate state of so many in the world and will in turn, feel grateful for all he has. Unfortunately, his last stop in Los Angeles to visit an old flame doesn’t help endear him to us, as the pinnacle of his self-absorption is exposed.
None of the film's failings, though, takes away from the superb performances by the cast. Simon Pegg, with some of his best acting to date, ranges from slapstick to emotionally heart-wrenching. Rosamund Pike, who is having a huge weekend between this and the Gone Girl release, is spot on as the overbearing girlfriend who herself begins to question her life choices. This is not to mention a supporting cast that most director’s dream of, which includes Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, and Jean Reno each of who are, as expected, excellent.
The reevaluation of one’s life is a noble cause and the beauty of travelling reminds us that we occupy a small place in this world. Unfortunately, any such insights we might gain from watching Hector search for happiness are lost against a backdrop of simplistic platitudes and culturally insensitive assumptions. My recommendation? Go to a museum, instead of going to see this movie.