A Fish Called Blah
By Matthew Singer
Man, if that title doesn’t get your blood pumping, nothing will! Kidding aside, the actual concept of salmon fishing in the Yemen is the most intriguing aspect of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It’s almost everything else that’s the problem. But the premise has potential: If a billionaire sheik really did try to introduce fly-fishing to the Arabian Peninsula by building dams in the desert and partnering with a British consulting firm to import 10,000 salmon into the region, it’d make for a great Werner Herzog documentary. Such an insane undertaking could even fuel a sharp geopolitical satire in the hands of, say, the team behind 2009’s brilliant send-up of international bureaucracy, In the Loop—or, you know, an author like Paul Torday, who wrote the irreverent book the film is based on.
Alas, Salmon is not a documentary, nor is it really a satire. It is, instead, the kind of offensively inoffensive, faux-sophisticated middlebrow fare that marks the work of director Lasse Hallstrom. (See: his two Best Picture nominees, Chocolat and The Cider House Rules.) Except, it’s actually a bit worse than that. Although the movie fits under the Swedish-born filmmaker’s beige-colored umbrella—bland, insignificant fluff in art-house packaging—Hallstrom seems to think it is something greater. Grating self-importance is another trademark of his, but it’s usually in service of making the audience feel smarter; that’s what it means to be a “crowd-pleaser” when your crowd is made up of rich suburbanites who make sure to put on their berets before entering the cinema. Here, the director oversteps his bounds in an attempt to display his own profound interpretation of the source material, resulting in a clumsy pile-up of rom-com cutesiness, watered-down political farce, tame action-adventure and pseudo-spiritual bullshit.
Caught in the middle of this tragic collision is a cast of mostly agreeable actors. Ewan McGregor plays Dr. Alfred Jones, a leading fisheries expert and repressed cubicle dweller trapped in a marriage that’s long gone cold. Into his life comes Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who requests his assistance in realizing her wealthy client’s dream of creating a salmon run in his vast, sandy backyard. Jones thinks it’s a crazy idea, but then he sees Ms. Chetwode-Talbot—as he refers to her ad-nauseum—in an evening gown, and, well, you can see where it’s going. It’s suggested that Jones has Asperger’s syndrome, which would explain the odd, emotional detachment McGregor brings to the role. Combined with Blunt’s underwritten part—her main characteristic is that she has a boyfriend who’s M.I.A. in Afghanistan — you get a situation in which two perfectly charming people couldn’t create sparks if their hands were made of flint. Kristin Scott Thomas gives it a go as the prime minister’s brassy press secretary, but this being a PG-13 affair, her barbed tongue is clipped; if you’ve seen In the Loop, imagine her as the fantastically venomous Malcolm Tucker edited for television. Worst of the bunch is Amr Waked as the sheik, whose falsely poetic musings about the saintliness of fishermen are delivered with an unintended smarm that had me wishing he’d drown in his man-made river.
But it’s Hallstrom’s sense of self-satisfaction that really sinks the movie to the bottom. It doesn’t help that the screenplay, adapted by Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy, sends incongruous elements tripping over one another, moving from “deep” conversations about faith and fishing to a terrorist plot, to a love triangle, to a scene in which McGregor thwarts an assassination by wielding his fishing rod like a bullwhip. (They don’t call him “Dr. Jones” for nothing.) That last part actually happens, and it’s as bizarrely out-of-place as it sounds, but that’s the sort of zaniness that would’ve served the story better than the sanctimonious slurry the film congeals into by the end. But then, it wouldn’t be a Lasse Hallstrom joint, and what would the folks with the berets do on Friday night?