Never let it be said that "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" doesn't deliver what it promises. There's plenty of salmon fishing, and sure enough, it happens in the arid, rocky Yemen region. The film tells the tale of how it happened, a majorly expensive orchestration of continental fish moving and high-stakes water management. That said, the story ends up not quite going where one may think it's headed. And that's not really meant in a good way. One-time Weinstein-driven Oscar-bait director Lasse Hallström delivers a competent, if forgettable mishmash of the unlikely. In the mix there's current events concern, travelogue escapism, and romance movie procedural. And don't forget religious axioms and terrorist intrigue. Hallström, to his credit, knows just when to spin the spinner of the above elements, move his game pieces into place, and then shoot accordingly.
"Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" sets itself up as a feature-length feel-good news kicker, which ironically is what Kristin Scott Thomas' character is after in the first place when she pushes this whole thing into motion, in need of a Middle East story "without explosions". With wealthy Sheikh Muhammed's (Amr Waked) desire to bankroll a salmon fishing hobby to the tune of a ton of money, she gets her wish. She then taps our attractive young protagonists to leave on a jet plane, and make the sheikh make it all a reality. McGregor's levelheaded character knows it's loopy, but is eventually reeled in.
The colorful film begins as an intriguing variation of the classic Hollywood screwball comedy, with Ewan McGregor capably filling what would be the Cary Grant role. The contemporary twist is that this about a currently volatile part of the world, and how numerous countries and powers-that-be can unite to give birth to one truly cockamamie plan. What starts off in a series of boring government offices in London eventually gives way to sun baked rugged terrain of the Middle East, where anything can happen, and sometimes does. It eventually simply stops functioning as a light screwball comedy, (which is really too bad) becoming a standard romantic drama in an unconvincing disguise. Nevertheless, McGregor makes a great fish out of water, chasing a whale of a tale, even if it's really Emily Blunt he's looking to net. Naturally, he's the last one on either side of the movie screen to realize this.
Ruminations on faith are floated (but never truly seized upon) as the sheikh at the center of this ambitiously kooky scheme to introduce salmon fishing to the desert region speaks in religious univeralisms, and frequently goads McGregor's proclaimed man of science about things of the spirit. This aspect of the film is promising in that it points toward offering some meat to fill out this lightweight affair - until it doesn't. Mildly frustrating, but not surprising, considering that the sheik never really moves beyond glorified Mr. Miyagi-isms.
Eventually, the film settles into a strictly by-the-book movie romance situation, in which all anyone really wants is to see these two get together as a couple, but umpteen obstacles keep intruding. McGregor, continuing to elude superstardom and remaining perpetually invisible to Academy Awards voters, proves once again that he's the go-to talent for anything, whether it's swinging a lightsaber, belting out Elton John tunes, taking his pants off, or in this case, embodying a dull Brit most compellingly. Emily Blunt is equally satisfying as The Girl in the movie, always beautiful, even during the parts when she's in love with the wrong guy.
The film, like Scott Thomas' hoped-for news story, offers an inconsequential change-of-pace look at a region that we only hear about as troubled. Although the characters set out in search of a story involving the Middle East that doesn't go boom, the movie can't quite pull that off.
This is not a bad film by any stretch, although, despite its title, it does have an unexpected, maybe terminal generality about it. That "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" did not end up being the movie it was appearing to be at the beginning is not a deal breaker in my book, but had it remained a little more screwball and a little less conventional in the end, it would make for a much better catch.
- Jim Tudor
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