There were plenty of surprises at yesterday’s Oscar nominations, but in the out-of-left-field department, they still couldn’t touch this year’s Golden Globes and their shocking anointment of the little-seen “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” as one of the best films of the year. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the organization in charge of the Globes) gave “Salmon Fishing” three high profile nominations: Best Actor (Ewan McGregor), Best Actress (Emily Blunt), and Best Picture (Musical or Comedy).
The accolades for “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” were a classic Golden Globes eye-roller. The Hollywood Foreign Press have been accused of payola before, and this film’s title and extremely modest success with both audiences and critics invited a new round of skepticism. Did the distributor, CBS Films, actually take the Hollywood Foreign Press salmon fishing in the Yemen to win them over?
I had a good laugh over the whole thing, and chuckled more when, to their credit, CBS Films responded to my jokes on Twitter. Eventually I realized I was being unfair. I hadn’t seen “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” when it opened last March. True, it had only made $9.0 million at the domestic box office; true, it had a mediocre 67% on Rotten Tomatoes and a B- average from the members of the Criticwire Network. But so what? Good movies fall through the cracks; critics have off-days. Could the Hollywood Foreign Press have gotten this one right? Did they champion an unjustly neglected movie? Perhaps “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” was actually one of the great cinematic achievements of our time.
Or perhaps not. But overall, it’s not terrible either. It’d even go so far as to say it’s kind of good. Or at least mostly okay. Anyway, it’s not even the worst movie in this year’s Golden Globe Best Picture, Musical or Comedy category. It might not even be the second worst.
A plot synopsis is not required because the title provides it, but let’s fill in some of the details. The fish provide the spark for a very chaste romantic comedy between a ichthyologist (McGregor) and an investment consultant (Blunt) for an Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) who wants to introduce salmon to the Yemen for the purposes of — wait for it — fishing. The plan would require shipping in tens of thousands of live salmon, and then feeding them into a river fed by means of a newly built dam. McGregor’s Fred is deeply skeptical that the project could work but Blunt’s Harriet is persistent and, thanks to Sheikh Muhammed, well-funded. The two unlikely colleagues grow closer, but there are, inevitably, impediments to their mutual attraction; Fred is married, albeit unhappily, and Harriet’s new boyfriend was just deployed to Afghanistan. If you think the idea of salmon swimming upstream to spawn could be a metaphor for this couple’s struggle to find love, there’s a very slim chance you might be right.
McGregor and Blunt generate a pleasant sort of oil-and-water chemistry in the early scenes, and “Salmon Fishing,” directed by Lasse Hallström, develops into a low-stakes rom-com for people who think comedies of the modern Apatow era have grown too vulgar. Actually, with its rigidly proper English characters, “Salmon Fishing” would probably work for people who thought comedies were too vulgar back in the 1930s. Fred and Harriet are so polite they don’t even call each other by their first names until well into the story’s second act. (One odd note: Harriet calls Fred by his professional title: Dr. Jones, which is incredibly distracting, at least if you’re an Indiana Jones fan.)
As the movie shifts to Yemen, so does its tone, which grows darker and more serious as it strains for social relevance with a subplot involving angry locals and their attempts to sabotage the sheikh’s plans to modernize the region. Still, that does lead to an assassination attempt on the Sheik’s life — which is stopped by Dr. Jones when he flicks the gunman in the face with a well-cast fishing line. That might be the biggest laugh in the entire movie, although I’m not sure it’s an intentional one.
Even at its most serious, “Salmon Fishing” is little more than mindless fluff. Still, that’s enough to give it an edge in my book over some of its competition at Sunday’s Golden Globes. It certainly entertained me more than Tom Hooper’s dreary adaptation of “Les Miserables,” and while it’s basically the same movie as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” — another film about stuffy British folks who travel off to scenic Asian locales to see the sights and find spiritual and romantic enrichment — it’s also a bit lighter on its feet and a bit less cloying.
Could “Salmon Fishing” win at the Globes? It’s unlikely with awards juggernaut “Silver Linings Playbook” standing in its path. If it were up to me, none of them would win; my vote would go to Wes Anderson’s lovely “Moonrise Kingdom.” But hey man, stranger things that happened. I once saw a salmon fisherman save a guy’s life by casting an assassin in the face. True story.