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The country of Yemen is a world-class producer of sand, desert heat, and political violence. Salmon are, of course, cold-water fish that are challenging to hook with a rod and reel but taste yummy once they’re caught. Based on a novel by Paul Torday, SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN tells of an eccentric billionaire Yemen Sheik (Amir Waked) determined to bring the sport of salmon fishing to his desert nation. Britain’s leading fisheries scientist Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is hired by the Sheik’s consultant Harriett (Emily Blunt) to help realize the Sheik’s dream and export the salmon from the U.K. Jones thinks the project unrealistic but the Prime Minister’s overzealous press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) latches on to it as a positive assignment that will help Anglo-Yemeni relations. The unhappily-married Jones is skeptical but enters knee-deep into the venture with the Sheik’s money to burn and the fetching Harriett, who may or may not be in love with an MIA British soldier, at his side.

Director Lasse Hallstrom is the go-to guy for churning out precious middlebrow adaptions of popular books (THE SHIPPING NEWS, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES). The source novel SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN was a political satire that poked fun at every aspect of British society, from government spinmeisters and crass politicians to marriages of convenience, TV interview programs, and consumerism. SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN the movie is a whimsical, unchallenging rom-com. It might have worked better if it had focused on the absurdities or logistics of the project at its story’s center but the Sheik is mostly kept in the background while the bland romance between Dr. Jones and Harriett is front and center. The actors aren’t at fault – McGregor and Blunt are both their attractive, appealing selves, but it takes more than a cute couple to make an effective love story and they can’t quite overcome the phoniness of Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay. The script throws out plot complications such as assassination attempts and the country’s first flood, but always jumps back to their predictable romance. The underused Kristin Scott Thomas scores some solid laughs with her bossy and brash persona, especially in scenes where she’s instant-messaging political strategy with the (unseen) Prime Minister. The movie comes alive when she’s on screen and I suspect these scenes mocking career bureaucrats best captures the tone of the novel, but unfortunately the movie is more interested in endless scenes of McGregor and Blunt staring moistly at each other and discussing their feelings. It might make a decent date movie but SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN forces the viewer to swim upstream for a story that in the end, doesn’t add up to much.

2 1/2 of 5 Stars

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN Opens in St. Louis Friday March 23rd at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Theater

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