Salmon Fishing In The Yemen slides into screens this week with one of the most uninspiring titles for a major release in years, but at least this movie does exactly what it says on the box. Admittedly, there are a handful of sweet and funny little moments as well as some nice performances from, but the film is ultimately about, well, salmon fishing in Yemen. It’s not exactly riveting subject matter. Sure assassinations, wartime tragedy, liberal doses of verbal sparring, and some gentle romance are woven in, but ultimately the movie is about the magical healing powers of fishing. It proves to be just as exciting fodder for an all-star comedy as birdwatching was for the already forgotten Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson joint The Big Year.
Ewan McGregor stars as a government fishing expert (apparently those exist) who is asked to look into the feasibility of transporting Salmon to the Arabian Peninsula to manufacture a fisherman’s paradise. The request comes from a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) for whom money and logic are not barriers for the impossible quest. McGregor initially laughs off the request, but it ends up peaking the interest of an cynical fast-talking press agent for the British Prime Minister (Kristin Scott Thomas), who wants the impossible dream to happen to create a positive Middle East news story to counter balance all of the bloody war coverage. McGregor is skeptical, but his interest is slowly peaked by the sheik’s stunning British representative (Emily Blunt). To complicate matters, Blunt is carrying a torch for a soldier MIA in Afghanistan and once the whole cast heads to Yemen, there are some gun-totting locals who don’t take so kindly to the sheik’s costly plans.
Well, a quick glance at the credits should reassure audiences that everything is going to be ok. The film was directed by Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire). These guys aren’t afraid to let the occasional dark theme slip into their work, but they never verge into creating films with a sense of moral ambiguity. Nope, these guys are crowd pleasures specializing in gently amusing fair with an eye on the Oscar prize and this is no exception. It’s a gentle little tale that hits all the expected beats and slips of the screen fairly painlessly. Audiences are likely to emerge from the theater with a mild grin on their face and then promptly forget everything they saw within minutes
One thing that Hallstrom and Beaufoy have going for them is a strong cast. Ewan McGregor appears in a rare cast-against-type form as a loveless dork obsessed with fishing. McGregor seems energized by playing very different role and is wonderful as a charming, funny, and socially awkward mess. And if you’re looking for a British actress to play an adorkable female fantasy, you could do a hell of a lot worse then Emily Blunt. She essentially hits two notes in the movie. She’s either in awkwardly funny and flirty mode when drumming up emotions with McGregor or appears sad and withdrawn when lamenting her missing army boyfriend. Even though the role is limited, Blunt always makes it believable. Then there’s Kristin Scott Thomas busting out her patented icy intellectual role, this time in comedic mode as a spin-doctor, and she’s frequently hilarious.
Despite their shared weakness for schmaltz and melodrama, Hallstrom and Beaufoy do typically create fairly interesting characters for actors to latch onto and that’s certainly the case here. Watching McGregor, Blunt, and Thomas pair off with each other in a collection of love scenes and comic asides is a pleasure, but it’s just a shame that the material they’re working with isn’t particularly compelling. All of the political commentary and references to war are there simply as dramatic asides to the dry central story and they never feel properly paid off or fleshed out. In the end, the movie always comes back to stale romantic comedy and passages about the escapist power of fishing. There’s nothing bad about Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, but there’s just nothing particularly memorable about it either. It’s a pleasant enough inoffensive time waster perfectly suited for lazy Sunday afternoon W Network programming and not so much for big screen entertainment.