Simon Pegg has always been more like a cartoon than a real boy. He’s one part Charlie Brown to two parts Tintin, a round-faced runt who can channel both childlike depression and old-fashioned cowlicked pluck.
In Pegg’s new film, Hector and the Search for Happiness, director Peter Chelsom simply allows him to be himself, and it fits. Hector is a psychiatrist quietly churning with adult-onset anxiety. He looks and acts mature — he downs wheatgrass shots every morning — but inside he’s still a kid. Hector’s girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike), tries cheerfully to ignore his inability to propose.
On a whim, Hector decides to make like Hergé and travel the world. He tells Clara he wants to write a book about happiness, but Pike plays the scene with just enough buried fear that we know that she knows he’s going off the rails. Then he and the movie are off on a scattershot adventure that, as scattershot adventures are wont to do, won’t make sense until it’s over. Each character he meets has a personal quirk to disguise the fact that they’re utilitarian props, which feels like the exaggerated extension of the way a navel-gazing Westerner sees the world.
A snowy Sherpa hike sequence is practically shot-for-shot the same as the one in Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, another film about an uptight white man who searches for his soul in Asia. The only destination more patronizing is Africa, so naturally Hector heads there, too.
Still, Hector is trying to say something true about a generation of quietly dissatisfied demi-adults who are terrified to take emotional risks. At least it left its comfort zone and tried.