Opinions of the film aside, Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) is a travelogue following a man-child psychiatrist who flies around the world under the guise of researching happiness to better assist his patients, but who more honestly wants to help himself. Everyone he meets along the way exists to facilitate his journey, both literally and emotionally. They are essentially not characters but utilities, often coming across as mawkish human bits of melodrama as opposed to real people. Hector’s (Simon Pegg) conversations with these folks don’t always feel organic, as the dialogue frequently runs into expository sentimentalism and self-help proselytism. It’s one of the main issues that turn so many critics away from the film, and relies on personal taste to whether or not it can be overlooked.
In China, Hector meets a rich businessman (Stellan Skarsgård), a beautiful and damaged prostitute (Ming Zhao), and a voraciously happy Buddhist monk (Togo Igawa). He then travels to Africa, where his old buddy Michael (Barry Atsma) is doing humanitarian work, meets a drug lord (Jean Reno), gets kidnapped by some scary dudes who nearly murder him, and has sweet potato pie parties with a woman he met on a plane. Finally it’s off to Los Angeles, where en-route he assists a dying woman on the airplane, reunites with an old girlfriend he never quite got over (Toni Collette), and finishes his quest for happiness in the company of happiness-studying Nobel candidate Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer). This is all while fighting an ongoing emotional battle with girlfriend-at-home Clara (Rosamund Pike), who is as emotionally awkward as Hector. Every character can easily be summarized with a few words, as they’re not characters as much as facilitators for Hector’s story. There’s no real investment from the audience in any of them, as each has their encounter with the titular character then goes away. None of them (save for Clara, arguably) undergo any growth or development beyond the scope of Hector's own perceptions.
“Each character has a personal quirk to disguise the fact that they're utilitarian props, which feels like the exaggerated extension of the way a navel-gazing Westerner sees the world. The monk is into Skype; the criminal dotes on his wife. But we never forget that each exists merely to teach Hector a Very Important Thing.” - Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly