Picking on "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" makes us feel like a bit of a bully, as though we're mercilessly teasing that super nice but incredibly dumb girl in class. It's an affable, inoffensive British comedy that just wants you to like it so much that you can't help but snicker behind its back. Or are we the only ones who are that cruel?
Based on Paul Torday's novel, "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" follows the efforts of a team to bring a salmon run to the Middle Eastern country at the request of an ambitious sheikh/amateur fisherman (Amr Waked, "Syriana"). The sheikh's representative Harriet (Emily Blunt) approaches fisheries expert Dr. Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor), who initially scoffs at the idea, then is reluctantly tasked with the enormous, multi-million dollar project. Meanwhile, the British prime minister is tired of all the bad press coming out of the area, so when his press secretary Patricia Maxwell (a delightfully bitchy Kristin Scott-Thomas) learns of the undertaking, she sees it as an opportunity to drum up some good PR for the administration.
In case we weren't invested enough in the plight of salmon fishers in the desert, there's an unsurprising romantic subplot added to the affair. Awkward Dr. Jones bores his oft-absent wife, while Harriet spends her time panicking over the disappearance of her soldier boyfriend, who she has a very deep connection with –after three weeks of dating. Inevitably, all the talk of fish, dams and lures draws Dr. Jones and Harriet together, making the project about more than just salmon.
The original novel was composed entirely of correspondence (which we'll imagine worked on the page), and it still peppers the script from Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire") in the appearance of emails, texts, and messages from a snarky PM on iChat. You'd think his press secretary would warn him against being so flip in a format that could be easily passed to the tabloids, but "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" doesn't always inhabit reality, even though its characters are dealing with problems of practicality and logistics. There are some sweet, nicely written moments here, but its charms are often dulled by the execution.
With its emphasis on the sentimental and relationships, "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" is a nice marriage of subject and director with "Chocolat" and "Dear John" helmer Lasse Hallstrom. This is emotional territory he's trod before, but there are some…interesting stylistic flourishes from him and director of photography Terry Stacey ("50/50"). In theory, we can see the merits of numerous slow-motion shots of the fish (many from the creatures' perspective), but in practice, it's a dull, poorly executed effort whose special effects seems better suited to an underfunded science museum than a film with this level of talent involved. Even the normally solid composer Dario Marianelli offers an uninspired score that predictably swoons along with the film's more sentimental moments.
The gorgeous, charming McGregor succeeds in playing the wan Dr. Jones, making him believably awkward in social situations while still keeping him sympathetic to the audience and attractive to Blunt's Harriet. Like many other elements of the rushed-feeling film, their relationship isn't really developed or backed up, but both lead actors are good enough that you buy it anyway. Blunt is given less heavy lifting, but she is as solid both comedically and dramatically as audiences have come to expect. Scott-Thomas was clearly having a blast being as mean as humanly possible in a film this nice. She skirts cartoonish territory at times, but it's a good contrast to the other characters in the film.
Where "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" fails is in its depiction of Yemen and the Middle East as a whole. It features an overly simplistic view that often reduces the region to its instability and wars, even while it's trying to proclaim the opposite. Ultimately, it wants to be an affirming story about triumph over adversity (like "The Full Monty," "The Dish," et al.), and it isn't trying to make any grand statements on politics in the area, but it comes across as reinforcing the ideas that it is ultimately against. [C+]