Thursday, March 22, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Alternate Title:  Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (what, you thought I was gonna top that?)

One sentence synopsis:  A biologist and a project manager try to help a Yemeni Sheik bring salmon fishing to his home country.

Things Havoc liked:  Independent film will be my salvation. When the doldrums are in full swing and the theaters stuffed with utter garbage, it is independent film that makes an experiment like this bearable. And popping up out of nowhere this year was a little film with a title so absurd that I sort of had to go and see it. Lighthearted comedies are not my usual fare, I know, but bear with me here. The alternative was 21 Jump Street.

Half political satire (a genre I'm lukewarm on), half romantic comedy (a genre I cordially hate), this movie is wickedly funny, particularly in the former case. Ewan McGregor (last seen being boring as hell in Beginners) plays a salmon expert working in some forgotten corner of the British government, trapped in a loveless marriage without realizing it. His counterpart, Emily Blunt (last seen opposite Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau), plays a woman hired to oversee a project that appears, on its face, to be insane, and upon further close study, to be even more insane. As romantic leads go, the arc these characters go through is nothing special, they hate one another at first and grow to love one another etc. That said, McGregor and Blunt are excellent in these roles (something not always true of McGregor), and particularly in the beginning of the film, sell the archetypes they are given flawlessly. What really pushes them over the boring threshold and into interesting characters however is the influence of the two real driving forces in the movie, the Sheik himself, and the Minister.

The Minister in question, the best character in the movie, is played by Kristin Scott Thomas as a cynical press officer to the British prime minister who latches onto the Salmon project as a means of generating good will between the UK and the Arab World. Thomas is flat out hilarious in every scene, playing the character like a partially-crazy control freak who is half again smarter than everyone else in the British government, and knows it all too well. The sort of character who insults their bosses at great length, confident that their boss won't get the joke. Though there's no doubt parallels to be made, the character isn't a particular pastiche of anyone (at least nobody I'm familiar with), as the point here is simple humor. Meanwhile, the Sheik, played by Egyptian actor Amr Waked (of Syriana), almost manages to convince the audience that a man might actually seek to do something like this. A pro-Western philosophical man who uses an outsized infrastructure project as an excuse to indulge in his hobby at home, he never quite gets across why he would dump this much money into a project this insane, but he manages to infer many of the reasons through his acting.

For a film that involves terrorism, death, political assassination, natural disaster, and spin doctoring, the film never gets morose or bogged down in moroseness. A lot of the humor is implied or observational, funny moments being elicited from shot construction or a piece of furniture. The direction (by Lasse Hallström, most of whose other films have been middling to awful) is this time sure and competent. The pacing is excellent, never letting the film drag too much in message or tragedy, intercutting hilarious sequences from back in Britain where the press, the government, and the officials who blend the two seem to be perpetually engaged in scheming against one another.

Things Havoc disliked: The story does get a bit absurd at points, particularly when terrorist assassins are infiltrating private estates in the Highlands of Scotland to shoot people. One can accept a certain level of absurdity in comedies of course, but the concept of the assassination is not played for laughs (though the resolution of it definitely is). There are several other sequences similar to this, where a plot point that seems ludicrous, even in a story about fishing salmon in the Middle East, is presented without actual comic purpose (the engineers from China come to mind).

But more important than the above is the formula of the romantic comedy element in this film. I don't object to the use of a formula here, as the basic formula is well executed. My objection is the "crisis" that the characters go through, in the form of Emily Blunt's boyfriend. Tom Mison (who plays the boyfriend) does a fine job, the issue is how he is inserted and re-inserted into the plot, something I can't describe without providing massive spoilers, but involves one of the characters acting in a way that would unquestionably get her beaten with a pipe wrench were she to do this in real life (and on national TV no less). It's transparently inserted into the story to provide a forced "crisis" between our two main characters, and contributes to why the last third or so of the film is the weakest.

Final thoughts:  But ultimately, you have to judge comedies, and particularly romantic comedies by different standards, and that is what I must do here. The movie is flat out funny, and that's kind of all you can ask a movie like this to be. It's not a laugh riot like some farces I've seen, but it maintains a generally funny tone throughout that elevates it above the pedestrian formula and last-third issues. As such, if you're fortunate enough to have an independent cinema near you, it might prove a better time than the rest of the dreck available.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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