The more I think about Hector and the Search for Happiness, the more I find myself thinking about how good it is. On the surface, it looks like it’s only about a man in search of a catharsis or emotional reckoning, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a story about a boy learning to be a person. Granted, the boy in question may be played by comedic actor Simon Pegg, most known for his work on the “Cornetto Trilogy” with director Edgar Wright and co-star Nick Frost; as a result, that familiarity with him may prevent people from seeing Hector and the Search for Happiness as the universally binding story that it is.
In every person’s life, there has to come a point where the world stops taking care of us, thus forcing us to take care of it. By “world,” I could mean the world at large, or our own little microcosms, which include our parents, siblings, and significant others. However, what happens when your world isn’t anywhere near as happy as you’d like it to be, even though it’s comfortable and cozy, where things are just laid out for you and you don’t have to think too much about anything? It may be what the kids these days call “first world problems” or “white whine,” but when you’ve become a slave to routine and stuck in the rut of ruts without even noticing, how do you break out of it?
Countless movies have covered this topic before, with American Beauty being one of the best examples of the midlife crisis being handled by someone just starting to dare to take chances. At least with Hector and the Search for Happiness, the titular Hector (Pegg) doesn’t have a wife or children to get caught in the midst of his troubles. Well, he does have girlfriend Clara (Pegg’s fellow The World’s End co-star Rosamund Pike), and his patients at his psychiatric practice, all of whose lives aren’t getting any better with his stultifying banality. After all, how can he offer advice to his patients without having seen any other sides of life? Seeking a spark to ignite him out of apathy and his mundane inaction, he leaves his life – and Clara – behind to go on a world adventure, not knowing where it will take him, couching it as a research trip to find what makes people happy.
It may sound like an overused, stock-standard tale of one person’s quest to find himself. However, the resulting film speaks on so many levels to the human condition and the things we value the most in life. Hector works his way deeper and deeper into the cause of human happiness, starting with the facetious and capricious, embodied by a moneyed banker named Edward (Stellan Skarsgård), whose idea of happiness is being able to afford the finer things in life, but with the codicil that one has to stay unhappy in order to do so. From there, Hector learns more and more about the simpler things, the things that money can’t buy – friendship, love, and the value of just being alive – and this takes him everywhere, from a monastery to a prison cell and everywhere in between.
When it comes down to it, Hector and the Search for Happiness is a story about a man who put everything on hold for the wrong reasons, and now that bill is coming due with a wicked vengeance. It says a lot about the fact that we prize affluence and position over being not just a good person, but being a citizen of the world who knows how to affect those around them positively and fruitfully. As Hector writes his notes (which appear on-screen as ersatz chapter headings), we find them being more and more simple, as if we’re meant to go back to square one from having jumped straight to square fifteen.
Through all of this, Simon Pegg emerges as a brilliant dramatic actor with a soul and depth I’ve never seen from him before, with his performance here being one of the strongest – and probably his best – I’ve seen to date. He plays Hector totally straight – well, as straight as one can play a man-child who’s pampered by his girlfriend, bored by his patients, and never seems to actually live. During each step, we see another skin shed as we reach Hector’s emotional core, and it’s a transformation that Pegg plays beautifully. The other actors play characters who merely amount to cameos in Hector’s life, which says a lot for how he treats those close to him. When their meanings are finally revealed, we realize that it’s not just Hector’s story – it’s the story of all of us, as well.