In Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a grouchy scientist (Ewan McGregor) and a perky real estate rep (Emily Blunt) bang their heads together to realize a wealthy sheikh’s outrageous dream: to relocate a large batch of cold-water salmon to the arid Yemeni desert to create a sport fishing hotspot. The task is insurmountable—but then, so is milking a romantic-comedy out of a story about relocating fish to an inhospitable habitat. But if anyone’s going to turn a bone-dry premise into a perfectly generic rom-com with massive tonal problems, it’s dreaded middlebrow director Lasse Hallström and Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy—two bad tastes that, when combined, add up to bland.
Based on a comic novel by Paul Torda, the film’s solution to the eyes-glazing-over set-up is to crank up the pep. McGregor’s reluctant Fred Jones is essentially kidnapped for the dodgy job, taking comfort only in sarcasm as well as, increasingly, the time he spends with Blunt’s Harriet Chetwode-Talbot. Before their relations take an inevitable turn for the moist-eyed—although our heroes keep things at a remove even the stars of Twilight would find too chaste—the two quirkily refer to one another with proper names. That means McGregor wastes much screentime mangling her mouthful of a surname, while she—in an apparent Indiana Jones joke that becomes instantly grating—repeatedly calls him “Dr. Jones.”
Blunt and McGregor, even in low-key mode, are hugely likable performers, and that goes triple for Kristin Scott Thomas, chewing oft-gorgeous scenery as a Malcolm Tucker-esque press officer who really deserves a movie with an R-rating. One of Hallström’s more aggravating traits is his ability to wrangle up talent, and the three actors work to make his latest joint almost watchable, occasionally. But Salmon Fishing loses credibility every time McGregor hangs with the annoyingly sage sheikh (Amr Waked), and bottoms out in a scene where an assassination attempt is thwarted by some expert fly-fishing maneuvers. Hallström doesn’t want to commit to a single vision, so you get a drama with cutesy animated iChat segments, a romance where the leads never even hold hands, and a light comedy with a body count.