Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In Theaters: Salmon Fishing in The Yemen

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

Salmon Fishing in The Yemen isn’t just the worst movie title that ever was, it’s the worst movie title that ever will be. Seriously, try to think of something worse. Go ahead, take five minutes, I’ll still be here. (Pause.) Back? Okay, what did you come up with? Here’s mine: High Definition Colonoscopy. That’s the worst movie title I can think of, and it still sounds more exciting than Salmon Fishing in The Yemen. But all joking aside, that title will probably certainly prevent a lot of people from seeing what is really a very good movie, and that’s a sad thing indeed. Salmon Fishing in The Yemen is not only better than it sounds, it’s also compelling, brisk, funny, charming, and quite entertaining.

In what should come as absolutely no surprise, Salmon Fishing in The Yemen is about—you guessed it—salmon fishing in The Yemen. Ewen McGregor and Emily Blunt star as a British fisheries expert and a financial consultant, respectively, who team up to help a Yemeni sheik realize his dream of bringing fly-fishing to the desert. Naturally, things don’t always go smoothly, and the project is mocked quite a bit in the film, mostly by Dr. Jones (McGregor), who is fond of referring to the idea as nothing more than “theoretically possible.” But the project gains steam when the Prime Minister’s press secretary (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) thinks the story will make for a nice good-will piece about British-Arab relations, and might distract voters from the ongoing issues in Afghanistan.

Adapted from a novel by Paul Torday, the screenplay was written by Simon Beaufoy, who won an Oscar in 2009 for adapting Slumdog Millionaire. Lucky for us, Beaufoy has experience in crafting great screenplays out of seemingly unwatchable stories, having already done so two years ago with 127 Hours, which was little more than ninety minutes in a ditch with a hallucinating James Franco (is there any other kind?). The dialogue frequently consists of witty banter between the stars (Thomas gets the best lines), and it feels positively Sorkinish in places. But then, when least expected, the sheik channels his inner Dalai Lama and imparts valuable lessons of faith on the doubting infidel Dr. Jones.

Director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) employs a style of great economy, keeping things moving along at a fast clip, and never bogging us down in the minutia of fishing unless there’s a good joke to be had for our efforts. As is typical of Hallstrom’s work, the location photography is beautiful (filmed in London, Scotland, and Morocco), and often framed in interesting ways. But Hallstrom’s real coup is the fantastic chemistry he gets from his stars. McGregor, as impeccably coiffed as always, and Blunt, with her great comic timing, radiate the kind of chemistry that’s become far too rare in today’s films.

Part of what makes the romantic comedy aspects of Salmon Fishing work so well is precisely because the movie isn’t just a romantic comedy. It’s a high concept movie with a plot all its own, and the audience gets invested in the romantic elements because we’re already so invested in McGregor and Blunt succeeding in their other joint venture. Like Bull Durham, Salmon Fishing in The Yemen never makes us feel like we’re watching a romantic comedy, and that’s what makes it a great one. In fact, when you try to talk someone into seeing this with you (and you should), don’t even mention the title. Just say you forgot what it’s called, but it’s “kind of a witty British quasi-rom-com with Ewen McGregor and Emily Blunt.” Hell, that’s a better title anyways.

The Grade: A-