Friday, March 30, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Review by Matt Finley

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN. What the title lacks in adrenal, marquee-ready concision it makes up for with a dry brazenness that almost immediately betrays it’s British sensibility. And I will say, at an American production company this would have been a non-starter or, more likely, an overly saccharine bit of soapy pulp stripped of any larger intellectual aspirations. As it stands, Lasse Halleström’s (CHOCOLAT) new film, based on a book of the same name by Paul Torday, is appealing and light on its feet. While it’s nice to see two even intermittently believable adult characters falling in love, it’s the film’s landscape of government inveigling and media manipulation, across which the lovers swoon, that makes it feel a bit more worthwhile than your average feel-good date-extender. Mind the emphasis on a bit – it’s not nearly as toothy as it believes - but I’ll gladly take it over the next galumphing Nicholas Sparks tear-siphoner.  

The movie follows Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a nebbish government fishery expert who finds himself yanked off his regular hatchery beat to assist Type-A consultant Harriot Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) in bringing salmon fishing to the markedly less-than-salmon-fishing-conducive Yemeni highlands. The plan, originally proposed to laughs of derision by the rich and eccentric Shiek Muhammed (Amr Waked), has been made over as a savvy gambit by the Prime Minister’s double-tongued press secretary (Kristen Scott Thomas) to create a fluffy, geographically convenient scene-stealer in the wake of a recent Brit-helmed bombing in the Middle East. As Parliament puppeteers Jones and Chetwode-Talbot away from, respectively, a loveless marriage of habit and a war-bound soldier boyfriend, the two slowly bond over the seemingly ludicrous project.

Again, that title – SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN. There’s gotta be a tortured metaphor in there somewhere, right? And, yes, it does hammer home the swimming upstream theme, comparing domestic moderns to sluggish farmed salmon. Remember the part in the trailer when Ewan McGegor turns around and walks “upstream” against the crowd of people? That happens.

Fortunately, rather than focus all its positivity on encouraging folks to revolt against the simple cultural banalities of domesticity and the everyday, it presents the true fight as one against the unstoppable forward motion of the geo-political machine, it's bureaucratic architects and, most insidious of all, its media proxies. Thomas’ character Bridget Maxwell, in particular, is a scheming conniver who feels no compunctions about leveraging Jones’ career or Chetwode-Talbot’s relationship in yanking the strings of a gullible public. In the least emo way possible, it demonstrates how every group and person, as professionals, as consumers and, in some cases, as individuals - friends, families, lovers - are made pawns of social and governmental institutions, which are charged or empowered to self-servingly shift paradigms by any means necessary. 

Sure, it's big stuff to touch on in a light rom com with an undeniably quirky premise, but it manages to playfully engage a number of wholly relevant (and largely dour) issues without ever giving in to pretension or forgetting its primary raison d'etre: to tell an honest human story.

Actually, the biggest casualty of the film’s playful aesthetic are a couple action sequences which play as so tossed off and toothless, they almost force Halleström’s feel-good tone into the realm of cloying naivete. Despicable as the hijacking of media objectivity by government stooges might be, it’s not unreasonable to portray it lightheartedly. Attempted assassinations and terrorist plots on the other hand… well, remove the horror completely and your plea to an audience to make the best of a bleak world will fall on glazed-over eyes watching victimless atrocities play out as rushed plot points in a bubble-headed fantasy land. There are also some too desperately witty visual tics, including fourth-wall breeching split-screen humor and a well-meant, if unnecessary, attempt to make shots of characters emailing appear visually dynamic.

Personally, I don’t like my bleak worldview served on the rocks, but I can appreciate a film that tries to be optimistic without being vapid, and acknowledge that hope can take whole lotta work. I'd definitely recommend SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN to fans of intelligent romantic comedy who are miserable at the current state of their genre. Meanwhile, most others will probably find its anti-spin soap-boxing a bit weak in the knees, its satire somewhat lillied in the liver, but if simple playful engagement doesn’t suit you, maybe seek your blistering political critiques somewhere other than a romantic comedy from the director of DEAR JOHN. (2 ½ out of 4 stars)

1 comment:

  1. Wife dragged me to see this. It felt somewhat good to support the only feature film for miles that seemed made for grownups (footnote 1: It wasn't American Made. Footnote 2: We were just about the only people in the auditorium), but otherwise I'll probably forget a lot of it before long. Nice to see Amr Waked's turn as the Quixotic Sheikh, before Hollywood hijacks him for bit parts as "Terrorist Mastermind #6" or somesuch in future comic-book garbage.

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