Hector and the Search for Happiness Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, Toni Collette. Directed by Peter Chelsom. Rated R. Opens Friday.
“First-world problems” is an obnoxious phrase, but one that’s hard to avoid when it comes to Hector and the Search for Happiness, in which Simon Pegg plays a vaguely dissatisfied psychiatrist who decides to travel the globe asking folks what makes them happy. In practice, that involves just three places: China, where he parties with a rich businessman (Stellan Skarsgård) and falls for a high-priced hooker (Ming Zhao); Africa, where he befriends a drug kingpin (Jean Reno) and gets kidnapped and nearly killed by militant thugs; and LA, where he touches base with an old flame (Toni Collette), to the irritation of his current love (Rosamund Pike).
Each of these episodes finds Hector learning life lessons designed to make him slightly less emotionally constricted, which should come as a huge relief to the suffering souls who provide them. Pegg struggles to make the guy sympathetic, but he’s trapped in an astonishingly tone-deaf portrait of smug, patronizing privilege—a film that, despite being thoroughly English, exemplifies the concept of the ugly American. “These are not the emotions of a grown man,” a scientist (Christopher Plummer) says at one point while studying Hector’s brain, and he could just as well be talking about the screenwriters.