Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Big Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Before my brother and I moved away, we would occasionally visit my grandmother and bring a movie to watch on her VCR. The movies had to be pleasant because she pretty much stopped following movies after "Oklahoma!"

Consequently, it was hard to find stuff that the three of us could enjoy. I remember watching "The American President" and "Sleepless in Seattle." Watching "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," I couldn't help but think, "She would have really liked this."

"Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" is the perfect "Grandma movie," and I mean that as a compliment.

As for my other grandmother, Grammy Dot, she watched everything. In Florida, Gram and her pals Sal and Rose would sneak into the movies. She adored Bruce Willis, and enjoyed the "Die Hard" movies. And I remember her getting all schoolgirl giggly recalling Bruce Dern's bare ass in "Coming Home."

Wow, I miss my grandparents.

This review previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


This year the multiplex offered two releases timed for Valentine's Day: The Vow, a scented candle of a movie with The Notebook's stale aroma, and This Means War, an adrenaline-laced romance from the auteur behind Charlie's Angels that for some reason starred Reese Witherspoon. (I did not see the second movie. Witherspoon's confused expression in the previews struck me as a dire warning.)

The more adult date movies, stuff like An Officer and a Gentleman or Out of Sight, are hard to find these days. As Mark Harris lamented in his brilliant essay for GQ, "The Day the Movies Died," a trip to the neighborhood movie house once meant that "adults were treated as adults rather than as overgrown children hell-bent on enshrining their own arrested development." Grown-up crowd pleasers have been shelved for can't-miss, profit-generating products aimed at shiny new things. Which would explain why Witherspoon, who turns 36 in March, still chases the youth vote.

Those factors have contributed to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an adaptation of Paul Torday's novel, opening in the anonymous month of March. The movie is a throwback in the best possible way, featuring adults with problems that can't be solved by special effects or wardrobe changes. Directed with uncharacteristic restraint by Lasse Hallström, who ripped out our heartstrings with Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, his latest film surprises us with its lack of saccharine guile.

Events begin when young consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) reaches out to Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), Britain's fisheries expert, on behalf of her wealthy client, a sheikh who wants to introduce salmon fishing to Yemen. Harriet believes this will improve "Anglo-Yemeni relations." Alfred immediately dismisses the project as "fundamentally unfeasible."

That would be that, except violence in the Middle East has the British prime minister's publicity maven (Kristin Scott Thomas) searching for good news there that she can attach to the UK. She finds Harriet's email regarding the salmon project and puts it on the fast track. Alfred, the embodiment of the stuffed-shirt academic, hates the idea. The sheikh’s plan is a waste of time, nothing more than the extravagant whims of a deluded, well-funded hobbyist. Harriet, of course, disagrees, backing up her points with science and hard data. Pressure from work and at home, plus the promise of a big salary, forces Alfred to collaborate with Harriet on the fishing equivalent of a mission to Mars.

A funny thing happens. Alfred becomes fascinated by the project's ambition and the ideals of the kind sheikh (Amr Waked), who views fishing as a religion that's open to all. But it's Harriet, whip-smart and PR pretty, who energizes him. Clearly the two are destined to share a toothbrush, so Hallström and Simon Beaufoy (the wry, heartfelt screenwriter of The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire) concentrate on their growing rapport. The delivery is surprisingly uncutesy, like the scene where Alfred corrects Harriet (who guessed his measurements) on his pants size when they both look terrific in formal attire or how he brings her a sandwich during a rough patch. His attraction to her goes beyond the physical. "She's a friend," Alfred screams at his suspicious, emotionally distant wife (Rachael Stirling). Harriet's professional façade hides a scared kid; Alfred's kindness is a balm to her. Right before Harriet and her new solider boyfriend (Tom Mison) make love, she tells him to "please be nice to me." Alfred and Harriet are proficient in everything else, except as people in relationships. They need each other, especially since their current partners are concepts. Harriet barely knows her boyfriend, but the newness excites her. Alfred's wife, constantly traveling for her job, has become a co-worker he sometimes shares a bed with.

The selling point behind any romance is its leads—they must resemble us in some way. Harriet's premature swooning and Alfred's complancey fit the bill, but Blunt and McGregor's ability to evolve throughout the movie instead of offering one trademark emotion is crucial. (That's one reason why The Vow, starring the permanently dour Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum—whose defining characteristic is his apparent devotion to ab workouts—so ponderous.) Blunt and McGregor soften throughout the movie, and we follow suit. When things get too mushy, Scott Thomas, channeling Peter Capaldi's profane spin doctor from In the Loop, offers a riotous, curt complement.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen charms us slowly and assuredly, offering us a sparkling romance in real-life terms. Harriet learns that you can't fall in love with an idea. Alfred discovers that a soul mate compels you to exceed your own expectations. Hallström does nothing more than reveal that there is a fish for every line, an idea that may not be sexy enough for big box-office. But for an enchanting, relatable romantic comedy, it's pretty close to perfect. [PG-13]

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