In the middle of the first scene of “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” somewhere amid the lyrical camera moves, light orchestral score and symmetrical faces, it starts to feel pretty obvious what the rest of the movie has in store. Though it has some funny and original moments, there’s a sort of gravitational force that drags the movie relentlessly down into broad sentimentality. Despite a promising premise, “Salmon Fishing” seems determined to be just another sappy romantic dramedy.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

At the Michigan
CBS Films


The story, basically, is that a Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked, “Syriana”) wants to bring salmon from Britain to his country’s deserts. But behind this are lots of characters and moving parts. There’s Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas, “Sarah’s Key”) the prime minister’s press secretary, who’s determined to chase a good story out of the Middle East among all the bad press. There’s Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt, “The Adjustment Bureau”), the sheikh’s sensitive but strong financial consultant. There’s Dr. Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor, “Beginners”) a by-the-book fisheries expert who’s brought in to head up the project. And, of course, there’s the sheikh, a philosophizing mystic who speaks almost exclusively in pearls of wisdom. It’s a lot to keep track of, but the movie’s brisk, sure pacing keeps up a nice energy through the lengthy exposition.

For the first 30 minutes, the movie seems unsure what tone to take, so it throws everything it has at the audience. There are quirky visual touches (split-screen, on-screen text), an interior monologue, some broad physical comedy and romantic-comedy tropes. It feels as if the filmmakers are desperate to keep the audience’s attention. But this early portion provides some of the film’s best moments. The confrontational rapport of Harriet and Fred, for example, is engaging, and their chemistry as they argue about the feasibility of the project has shades of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in “Bringing Up Baby.”

Unfortunately, about halfway through, the director (Lasse Hallstrom, “Dear John”) abandons the comedy and goes straight for the cheese. And the more it moves toward maudlin drama, the less compelling “Salmon Fishing” becomes. The film teeters on the edge of some larger issues — the “great British class system,” and Mideast conflicts, for instance — but never gets deep enough to say anything thoughtful or new about them. And it insists on explaining everything to you. “Don’t worry,” the film seems to be saying throughout, “you’re safe.”

For a film about fishing, there’s very little of it in “Salmon Fishing.” It’s so adamant about a life-as-fishing metaphor that fishing itself seems to exist only in the abstract, as a device to drive the plot forward and give meaning to these characters’ lives. The film is saturated with condescending swimming-upstream images and metaphors. The movie continually tells you what it’s supposed to be about. At one point the sheikh says “I expected people to understand. To understand that it was never about fishing.” The “it” there could just as easily be the movie itself, and the filmmakers are intent that you get what they’re saying without having to think for yourself.

“Salmon Fishing” puts all the right pieces in place for a good story: Harriet’s boyfriend is a soldier who’s deployed to Afghanistan, Fred is stuck in a tepid marriage, and both their romance and their goal of introducing salmon to Yemen seem impossible. But whenever the tension reaches a peak, the movie nicely dissipates it for you, making for a hollow cinematic experience. Yet for a film that so insists that, hey, we could all learn a thing or two from salmon, some hollowness is to be expected. Like so many films of its kind, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is pleasant, but not much more than that.

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