What an extravagantly unnatural project this is! Not the billionaire sheik building a series of dams in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula to create a salmon run that might stimulate ecological and economic growth. That's the part of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen that makes the most sense. No, what's really unsupportable is how Lasse Hallstrom's movie tries to blend political satire with globe-hopping adventure, and cosmopolitan relationships with soft spiritualism. That's how we wind up with a romantic comedy in which the sophisticated banter is paused so Ewan McGregor can save the sheik from an assassination attempt, by using his fishing rod like a bullwhip to knock a gun from a terrorist's hand.
Accordingly, McGregor's character is named "Dr. Jones." He's addressed by that title for most of the movie, and calls Emily Blunt's wry consultant "Ms. Chetwode-Talbot" for months after they've been working together—formality that can only be explained as extreme passive-aggressive hatred or a Jane Austen fetishist's form of flirtation. Depending on your mood, this game is either kinky or fantastically annoying. I had even less patience for the sheik (Amr Waked) waxing spiritual about how all fishermen are "men of faith," not realizing that most people go fishing to escape from people yammering balls about God.
Like the similarly grandiose hooey in the angler's movie The River Why, Salmon Fishing is based on a book—this one's by Paul Torday. I endured the page-bound contrivances of the story for the vulnerable chemistry between Blunt and McGregor, along with a spirited performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as an unscrupulous flack. What I couldn't handle was Hallstrom, who made Chocolat, once again wrapping up junk food in classy packaging and selling it as art. The more Salmon Fishing preens in its own supposed profundity, the sillier it seems. When the fish start jumping, the movie is so proud of the significance that you'd swear Hallstrom had actually built the desert dams. Eventually, the movie undermines even its honest emotions for ostensibly significant payoffs. A dead soldier is brought back to life so Blunt can face a not-all-that-agonizing decision of the heart, and the love triangle is just like the one in Casablanca, but the exact opposite. The problems of three little people add up to a pile of dead salmon. PG-13.
SEE IT: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen opens Friday at Fox Tower.