Opening Friday

Hector is curiously unhappy. A well-off London psychiatrist, he seems to have all the necessary components of happinessan adoring girlfriend, a job he likesand yet he can’t seem to turn the corner into contentment.

So Hector sets off on a globe-trotting journey to find himself, resulting in the tone-deaf, clumsy and fundamentally icky comedy HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS. After this and last year’s similarly themed yawn The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I propose a 10-year moratorium on “quirky” stories of middle-class Western pilgrims seeking enlightenment in exotic locales. Maybe 50 years.

Hector is played by the brilliant British comic actor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead), who is such a naturally funny person that he salvages several scenes with sheer force of personality. But director Peter Chelsom (Hannah Montana: The Moviethis seems significant) insists on putting Pegg through a series of increasingly implausible and squirm-inducing scenarios.

Traveling in China, for instance, Hector befriends a wealthy banker (Stellan Skarsgård) who arranges for a local prostitute to pose as a date for Hector. When she’s violently dragged off by her pimp the next morning, Hector reflects on his pleasant evening and scribbles in his notebook: “Happiness is not knowing the whole story.”

Similarly offensive encounters transpire in a small African village and a mountaintop Buddhist monastery. Everyone who crosses paths with Hectorhappy villager, wise monkis inserted sideways into the script to impart creaky platitudes about life and love to the hapless British guy. The film’s shamelessness is kind of breathtaking, really. And we haven’t even gotten to the part with the cancer patient.

Hector’s observations are reproduced onscreen as phrases and sketches from his notebook, which at least adds some visual flair to the proceedings. Rosamund Pike plays Hector’s uptight girlfriend in London, Jean Reno has a funny sequence as a drug dealer and Toni Collette shows up toward the end as Hector’s old flame in the exotic wilds of Los Angeles.

What’s particularly galling about Hector is that the film is clearly aware of its own bullshit. A few key scenes in the beginning, and one in the end, suggest that the film may have been intended as satire at some pointa movie about movies about bourgeois metaphysical quests. That certainly would have been more interesting, and squarely in Pegg’s wheelhouse. But with more than 20 producers listed, you get the sense that a lot of sugar was poured on this thing.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Fool’s paradise”