TORONTO – These days, it’s unlikely that Simon Pegg or Peter Chelsom would begin a search for happiness in the pages of a newspaper.
That’s because both star and director of the earnest new dramedy Hector and the Search for Happiness have been frustrated by critics — especially across the pond in their native U.K. — they believe have missed the point of the film in their scathing write-ups.
The Telegraph declared the movie “bleak and awful,” the Observer called it “stubbornly naive” and the Hollywood Reporter in a particularly pointed critique concluded that the movie was “crushingly banal and offensive in its use of cultural stereotypes.”
Such notices put Pegg and Chelsom on the defensive.
“The film is too open-armed for some people,” said Chelsom during the Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s a bit of a mirror, the film. Somebody said it’s like two hours of therapy and it is. It’s designed to be a great, visceral experience — I didn’t want it to get too bogged down in its own debate intellectually.
“They’re missing the point completely and they’re depriving an audience of an experience I know they’ll like,” added Chelsom. “I tested the film in Britain and the numbers were higher than they’ve had for years and years and years.
“It’s a shame when some critics do that because they have that power.”
Still, director and star alike were confident that their film would be more gratefully accepted by North American audiences when it opens this Friday.
Based on a best-selling book by Francois Lelord that Pegg never read (“It’s a self-help book in some respects, and I felt like I don’t need help,” he quipped), Hector centres on a coddled London psychiatrist whose posh apartment — torn from the pages of a design magazine — and seemingly flawless mate (Rosamund Pike) can’t stem the advance of listless ennui.
So with a little notebook in hand, he breaks from carefully assembled routine and decides to embark on a somewhat aimless trip around the world to better understand the nature of happiness. Toni Collette and decorated Canadian actor Christopher Plummer portray two of the characters drawn into his orbit over a trip that takes Hector to L.A., China and Africa.
It’s the portrayal of the latter two destinations that has drawn particular scorn from critics — including those who note derisively that the film only refers to these massive, complex places as “Africa” and “China.”
Chelsom and Pegg feel that this specific criticism is especially misguided.
“It’s told from the point of view of Hector’s childhood self, who he’s kind of lost touch with,” pointed out Pegg, star of Shaun of the Dead as well as the Star Trek and Mission Impossible franchises. “The film is kind of like a fable … there’s a reason why it’s told in archetypes. It’s not just being socially irresponsible and saying: ‘Yeah, China’s like that and Africa’s all elephants.’ It’s like, this is how a kid would tell you the story.
“I was a little disappointed at some of the first-year film-student takes, like: Oh yeah, it’s just called ‘Africa.’ That’s the point. He goes on this mythic journey like a seven-year-old would. And children aren’t ironic. They have pure, raw, real emotion and that’s kind of the point of the film.
“For people to wince slightly at its lack of irony felt like missing the point to me.”
Whatever the interpretation of the film’s intentions, Pegg and Chelsom agree that Hector can be a difficult character to like.
Whether snoozing through his pampered London life with sad-eyed boredom or confronting new locales with the awkward curiosity of what Chelsom calls a “bumbling nerdy British traveller,” Hector can be a prickly seatmate — which is why Chelsom says hiring an actor as relatable as Pegg was crucial.
“That’s the point about Simon — it’s that Tintin-esque spring in his step,” he said. “That’s what’s so lovely about him.”
Pegg, for his part, was motivated by the demands of the role.
“I like the challenge of that,” he said. “It’s much more interesting when you’re an actor to play a character who has a journey to go on.
“It felt fun to play almost like a villain.”