SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN
2 stars out of 4
Simply based on the title, a lot of people are going to avoid this movie, understandably thinking it to be either a documentary or a staid political drama. Failing to capture the sardonic and acerbic wit of the Paul Torday novel on which it so very loosely based, it is political in the same way that Mitt Romney's recent biscuit-and-grits statement was political. It's pandering, flat-footed, mildly insulting and largely inconsequential.
Obviously without trying to do so and questionably benefiting from the recent alleged attack on Afghani civilians by a U.S. soldier, "Salmon" will initially appear to be of-the-minute and highly topical, but as it turns out, that was just odd timing and dumb luck. At its core, the movie is rooted in 1950s romantic melodrama, containing just the slightest whiff of danger and dark comedy.
On the heels of an attack by a British suicide bomber, the Prime Minister's brilliant and wired press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) implores her largely clueless staff to comb through every bit of online data they can to come up with any feel-good story that could offset this colossal political and PR catastrophe. With little to work with, Maxwell latches on to a budding intercultural development involving a filthy-rich sheikh with a fishing obsession, his spunky UK publicist with drive to burn and a tightly-wound government wildlife scientist.
Perhaps because of the current climate regarding the cinematic portrayal of Middle Eastern -- and in particular, -- Muslim --characters, Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy take the most potentially interesting and oddball character (the sheikh, played by Amr Waked) and keep him vanilla-safe and dishwater-dull. The filmmakers aren't quite as politically correct with the other three dozen or so (mostly non-speaking) Muslim characters that are all timid dimwits, radical terrorists or inept assassins.
In previous films, both Ewan McGregor (as Alfred) and Emily Blunt (as Harriet) have proven to be more than adept at handling (both dramatic and comedic) romance and could have easily done that here had the filmmakers' settled on whether the movie was going to be funny or serious and not enough of both. It also doesn't help that Beaufoy makes sure Alfred and Harriet's respective significant others are written to be so generic and imminently forgettable. The coupling of the two leads is a forgone conclusion from the second they meet.
The plot -- highly workable in the book but practically laughable (in a bad way) here -- is a comic goldmine but again, the filmmakers take the earthy material and turn it into bland, "heartfelt" drama. Patricia is the only character that regularly gets any laughs and seems like she escaped from another movie and fell into this one by accident. Despite the film's lack of overall quality, dedicated fans of Thomas can be assured they'll get their money's worth where she's concerned.
Perhaps under different global political circumstances -- and with a less-skittish, more daring director who isn't afraid to ruffle some feathers and stir the pudding -- this could have turned out to be a black comedy gem. You can't take material this absurd and volatile and retool it into something that is essentially a made-for-TV Lifetime production. (CBS Films)