Friday, March 23, 2012

Something Fishy This Way Comes

Today is Friday, March 23'rd, and I feel as though I'm officially reviewing the first Academy Award contender of 2012. There are a couple of reasons Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was my most anticipated film for March, over the likes of the exciting John Carter, indie Jeff Who Lives at Home, and the juggernaut atop everybody else's lists, The Hunger Games. The first was the casting; between Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas, there wasn't a single weakness anywhere in the actors presented. I'm a huge fan of Blunt, and McGregor and Thomas have been known for their outstanding work in the past. The second was the story, a unique tale that quickly distanced itself from the usual band of retreads that Hollywood pumps out with regularity. There wasn't any time in the past few months in which I didn't expect this film to be a great addition to the ranks of my Top 10 for the year, not just at the time of its release but far down the line as well.

Based on the book of the same name by Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen tells the story of fisheries scientist Alfred Jones (McGregor), who finds himself involved in an insane pipe dream, as he is hired by Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) in an effort to introduce the sport of salmon fishing to the dry Middle Eastern country. He is practically forced into the project by the British government, as Public Relations chief Bridget Maxwell (Thomas) desperately needs a feel-good news story from the Middle East as the ongoing war has hardly helped matters. While Alfred at first believes that the entire notion of introducing cold-climate fish to the arid desert is unfeasible, he gradually is persuaded by the charisma and brilliance of the Sheikh and his financial strategist Harriet Chatwode-Talbot (the lovely and talented Blunt), especially as it forces him away from his mundane everyday life and into something new and unknown. Eventually, he finds himself completely behind the project, but the daunting task of succeeding at what is barely theoretically possible is yet another matter.

Two actors I'll always watch
The acting, as expected, is as wonderful as I imagined. McGregor is, to the surprise of nobody, a natural at playing the insecure, know-it-all with a heart of gold. As the story's hero however, McGregor needed to be more than a stereotype in order to properly capture the distinct personality of Alfred Jones, and he gives us a show as close to perfection as any actor possibly can. It's actually amazing that in almost eighteen years of performing, McGregor has never been nominated for an Academy Award, as even his star turn in the popular-if-polarizing Moulin Rouge was close, but no cigar. His chances have to improve eventually, and hopefully he won't have to wait as long as Beginners co-star Christopher Plummer did to get one of those golden men. In the meantime, I'll simply enjoy every single one of McGregor's performances going forward. Blunt is still trying to make a name for herself in Hollywood, and I certainly hope Salmon Fishing in the Yemen helps her to that goal. It's hard to believe that it's been six years since The Devil Wears Prada, but stardom seems strangely elusive for the exceptionally talented Blum, who always seems to be in good movies that most people just don't bother to see. Here she commands the screen with her mere appearance, adding greatly just by opening her mouth and speaking. If that seems like limited praise, it's because I honestly don't know how to describe her importance to the film, other than that her mere appearance raises the standards of everything around her a million percent.

Waked's work is the stuff Academy Award nominations are made of.
The real star of this film however might be Waked, whose role seems tailor-made for generating awards buzz. As the charismatic, intelligent Sheikh Muhammad, Waked manages to imbue the role with everything needed and more, succeeding in becoming the heart and soul of the film in the process. I knew going in that he would likely be the best thing about the film, and his performance did not disappoint. The only disappointment is Thomas, whose part would fit in well with a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Whether she is running around shouting on the phone, mugging for photo opportunities or staring down the Prime Minister, her character is strong but without grounding in reality. This is no fault of Thomas, of course, but of a role so comically written that it throws off the film's entire dynamic without even trying.

Yes, he gets "It's So Big" a lot...
And unfortunately, this is a film that gets off the rails more than once on its quest to get from start to finish. While the central idea of transplanting Salmon into Yemen is a unique idea itself, just about everything around it is tepid, predictable and forced to the point where you can see the whole plot coming a mile away. Director Lasse Hallstrom has been revered in the past for his adaptations of The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and The Shipping News, but his work on Salmon Fishing in the Yemen feels surprisingly amateur, most notably with sudden musical score changes when something dastardly is about to happen. The conflicts in the film feel contrived to the point of exhaustion, as though Hallstrom attempted to express his views on culturalism in the Middle East without actually knowing anything about the subject. Additionally, some scenes that should have definite significance (such as McGregor walking against a tide of people to compare him to the upstream-swimming salmon) are wasted, as they are presented without any specific context. The inevitable romance between McGregor and Blunt is also predictable, though at least the story complicates things by starting these two off with preexisting romantic relationships.While the scenes featuring Kristin Scott Thomas are in fact humorous, they detract from the film by being TOO funny, contrasting sharply with the seriousness of the rest of the tale.

John Krasinski, you lucky bastard...
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen overcomes these problems thanks mainly to an acting corps that consistently raises the bar on talent, and a believable romance that works much in the same way as fellow 2012 release Friends With Kids, albeit with a bit more class. There are definitely issues with the story and how it's told, but those two major factors push this title above most of the recently released mediocre movies, turning it into the #2 Film of 2012. While I think you could push this film aside and focus on the other good titles that were released this March, it also makes the perfect counter for if and when you're not interesting in seeing the big, showy special effects-laden films that have dominated the box office these past couple of months. Waked's performance especially makes this film a must-see, and even if you don't see it in the theater, it would definitely be worth a rental this summer. I for one am glad I saw it on the big screen, but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen wasn't the game-changer I was certain it would be.

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