Dir: Peter Chelsom. UK-Germany-Canada.  2014. 114mins

Hector And The Search For Happiness

One man’s quest to find the meaning of life is transformed into a sweetly sentimental tearjerker in Hector And The Search For Happiness. The long planned screen adaptation of Francois Lelord’s 2002 novel is pitched somewhere between the fuzzy lollipop epiphanies of Eat Pray Love and the daredevil globe-trotting in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.

Pegg handles the dry verbal humour and physical comedy with ease but also creates a fully rounded portrait of an emotionally squeamish man who has been far too afraid of living for far too long.

The popularity of the novel in Europe should create a fan base for the film but the biggest commercial asset is Simon Pegg successfully rising to the challenge of a more dramatically demanding role than anything he has previously played.

Pegg’s box-office track record outside high profile franchises (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, the Cornetto trilogy) has been patchy, with the welcome for Run, Fat Boy, Run matched by the disappointments of Burke And Hare and A Fantastic Fear Of Everything. Hector could also wrongfoot Pegg fans expecting a more obviously comic vehicle, creating a tricky marketing challenge for distributors. Koch Media opens in the UK on August 15.

Hector (Pegg) is a middle-aged psychiatrist with the guileless naivete of Stan Laurel. He is currently sleepwalking through a London life that includes professional success and a contented relationship with his attentive partner Clara (Rosamund Pike). Something is missing and so he embarks on a voyage of self-discovery to research what makes people happy.

Armed with a notebook and a childlike curiosity, his quest takes him from Shanghai to Africa and Los Angeles via encounters with wealthy banker Edward (Stellan Skarsgaard), a Buddhist monk (Togo Igawa), arms dealer Diego (Jean Reno), old flame Agnes (Toni Collette) and psychiatric guru Professor Coleman (Christopher Plummer).

It is a rambling, picaresque journey marked by some far from profound fortune cookie discoveries (Happiness Is Being Loved For Who You Are, Avoiding The Road To Unhappiness is Not The Road To Happiness etc), duly noted down in Hector’s journal and scribbled on screen. There are infrequent animated sequences often enterprisingly used to save the costs of expensive, live-action moments.

Cinematographer Kolja Brandt ensures a handsome looking production and veteran director Peter Chelsom confidently steers the narrative through shifting gears of tear-stained whimsy, hearttugging emotion, comic slapstick and even gritty jeopardy when Hector is kidnapped in Africa.

Pegg is on screen in every scene, with an underused Rosamund Pike’s longsuffering Clara often confined to the other side of brief Skype conversations. Pegg handles the dry verbal humour and physical comedy with ease but also creates a fully rounded portrait of an emotionally squeamish man who has been far too afraid of living for far too long.

There is subtle sense of restraint in all aspects of his performance from the barely suppressed rage at his self-indulgent clients to his giddy joy on discovering that it truly is a wonderful life. It is an impressive performance, suggesting Pegg has a wider range that has yet to be fully tapped.

Production companies: Egoli Tossell Film, Screen Siren Pictures

International sales:  Bankside Films www.bankside-films.com

Producers: Judy Tossell, Klaus Dohle, Trish Dolman, Christine Haebler, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Christian Angermayer

Screenplay: Maria Von Heland, Tinker Lindsay, Peter Chelsom based on the novel by Francois Lelord

Cinematography: Kolja Brandt

Editor: Claus Wehlisch

Production designer: Michael Diner

Music: Dan Mangan, Jesse Zubut

Main cast: Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, Stellan Skarsgard, Toni Collette, Jean Reno, Christopher Plummer