At one point in this meandering and underwhelming comedy drama, the title character played by Simon Pegg is referred to as “the Indiana Jones of happiness”. Bar a shared fondness for khaki and a propensity for getting into scrapes with shady foreign types, it’s hard to find any other parallels between Harrison Ford’s rugged thrill seeker and Pegg’s wimpy psychiatrist wrestling with an early mid-life crisis.
Hector lives a well-ordered if mundane life in London, tending to the ills and woes of his patients while dutifully supporting his high-flying businesswoman girlfriend (Rosamund Pike), but feels there’s something missing. Consequently, he decides to set out on a global voyage of discovery to ascertain the true meaning of happiness and perhaps more fully understand his own emotionally squeamish psyche.
What follows in director Peter Chelsom’s film is a series of ho-hum adventures, as Hector travels to China (taken under the wing of a western businessman, falling foul of local pimps and visiting an order of reclusive monks), Africa (assisting aid workers, befriending a drug baron and kidnapped by military rebels) and Los Angeles (reconnecting with an old flame and seeking the counsel of a happiness “guru”). It’s a stop-start journey with no tangible linking thread, save for the fact that Hector gets punched just about everywhere he goes. It’s hard not to cheer when that happens, because one of the chief hurdles the movie faces is the fact that, at heart, Hector isn’t particularly likeable, even in the hands of the usually charming Pegg.
The screenplay, co-written by Chelsom, is based on a novel by a French psychiatrist, but its fortune-cookie wisdom, intermittently captioned on screen (“happiness is being loved for who you are”), is straight out of a lazy self-help manual, and there’s rarely a sense that Hector learns anything about himself or how to be happy. The stabs at comedy invariably fall flat, starting in the first few minutes during an idiotic scene that hauls out the musty old schoolboy joke of a foreigner pronouncing “happiness” as “a penis”.
Zig-zagging from weak humour to high drama, the film is frustratingly disjointed. And although the exotic locations are always beautifully shot, the movie lurches from, for example, the squalor of a mercenary prison to scenes of multi-ethnic joyous partying, like it can’t decide whether it’s a hard-hitting John Pilger news report or a Southern Comfort ad. Viewers may find themselves wanting to climb through the screen, hand Hector an air ticket home and tell him to just buck up and get over himself.
None of the supporting players has much of an opportunity to make a great impression, the action is so resolutely focussed on Hector. Pike, as the prim and proper girlfriend, seen largely in Skype conversations with her beau, is an unconvincing comedienne, Jean Reno as a drugs baron pops up in his default setting of menacing bad guy and disappears all too quickly, and it’s a puzzle why Stellan Skarsgård’s confident, well-to-do businessman would want to spend any time with a wimp like Hector in the first place.
An early scene, before Hector sets out on his quest, hints at the d-word, although depression is never mentioned by name, but Chelsom ultimately opts to steer clear of that particular complex can of emotional worms. This is a lightweight browse through the indefinable concept of happiness, and anyone searching for even the suggestion of an answer won’t find it here.