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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' Comes Up Empty

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With an unstable and unpopular government, Yemen has been torn by civil conflict and civil war. American Predator drones targeting leaders of Al Qaeda, a group that dominates parts of the country, regularly fly over the troubled nation on the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemen of reality bares almost no resemblance to the fantasy land of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, surely one of the worst titles for a film since… well, has there ever been a worse one?

Salmon live nowhere near the Yemen, and that's the comedic hook from which director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat) hangs his latest effort at arranging pretty people against polished settings and pretending it's art house. In the movie (based on the novel by Paul Torday), Yemen's ruler, a fabulously wealthy oil sheik (the country is actually a republic and has little oil) decides to bring salmon fishing to his hot, arid land, even though the species thrives only in cool, damp climates. “Bloody nonsense!” declares British fish scientist Fred Jones, tasked to make the impossible dream come true. Jones is forced into the project by a U.K. government eager to foster good relations with the Arab world. He's a prim, proper Scotsman, ramrod in rectitude and, like every other character in the film, a stereotype waiting to come alive.

Of course, there must be romance. It appears in the form of the sheik's British investment adviser, the free-spirited and comely Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who eagerly shepherds the salmon scheme. Early on, her boyfriend of three weeks is sent on a Special Forces mission in Afghanistan and might never return. With good reason, she regards Jones as a right dull fellow, yet in the inevitable and preposterous plot turns (oiled by saccharine music), romance blossoms on the rocky Yemeni soil.

There are flashes of absurd British humor in Simon Beaufoy's screenplay, but not enough of them to brighten the dimly conceived project. The prime minister's media adviser, Bridget Maxwell (a drolly composed Kristin Scott Thomas), gets many of the best lines. “We need a good-news story from the Middle East. You've got one hour,” she snaps at her hapless staff. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is not the good news most of us are waiting to see.
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