Why ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ Needs a Punch in the Face

17 Oct

I didn’t know that you can’t fish for salmon in the Yemen, because I don’t know much about salmon and I wasn’t sure where the Yemen is (it’s on the tip of the Arabian peninsula, for what it’s worth). But this movie title was probably aiming at the more the more geographically aware, and presumably is trying to be intriguing and perhaps even a bit mystical. The roles are played by Serious Actors too — it’s got Ewan in it, and Emily Blunt and Kristen Scott Thomas — so you would be forgiven for expecting this to be intelligent, witty, perhaps too pretentious for its own good. You at least know it’s not going to be a formulaic rom-com nonsense fest. Despite that, here are some [SPOILER filled] reasons why SFITY needs a punch in the face.

1. It’s a formulaic rom-com nonsense fest

Miserably unavailable boy meets happily unavailable girl (vice versas apply). They dislike each other. They are forced into a bristly working relationship. As they get to know each other, things start to challenge their first impressions of one another. They start to like each other. One or both become romantically available (or potentially available). They start to fall in love. Shockingly one or both become extremely unavailable again. One is very sad about it; the other is at least disappointed and wondering what might have been. All hope is dashed and they move on with their li… NO WAIT, what are they doing? This is true love, people! Obstacle to love is removed and they live happily ever after.

This describes the plot of about a thousand movies. Most of them have the decency to be called, ‘She Loves Me She Loves Me Notting Hill’ or ‘How to Have Serial Shallow Relationships But Still be Deep and Emotionally Mature When The One Comes Along’. But SFITY pretends to be Something Different; it tries very hard to appear quirky and British and not-like-all-the-rest. Yet it’s the same predictable formula from start to finish. No deviations.

2. It’s heart-achingly, butt-clenchingly transparent

Movies like this try to appeal to the superiority complex in most of us, but they’re also afraid to lose the lowest common denominator that may have wandered in by accident. So they use about as much subtlety as a fight at the Gaulish fishmonger’s.

Subtlety

For example, Ewan is trapped in a rut. He hates his job, battles in his marriage etc. So he starts the movie in stuffy suits, speaking very formally, and behaving all rigid. By the end of the movie, he has become his own man again, has sexy hair and a tan, wears buttoned down shirts, and looks ready to rejoin Charlie Boorman for a quick desert adventure ride. It’s Clark Kent to Superman.

Why yes I am a hyper-conservative government-employed biologist

3. The main characters are spineless idiots

I know we’re supposed to rejoice when the heroes finally hook up, but why? Ewan divorces his wife because ‘they married young’, and she announces she’s off to work in Geneva for six weeks without asking him. No amount of counselling would fix those scars, right?  He also starts hitting on Emily before deciding on the divorce; but that’s OK everyone, because he decides to leave his wife anyway even when it looked like it was off with Emily too. That’s integrity folks. So how does he win the girl back? By moping, by making Army Man feel bad for coming back, and by telling Emily (who’d made him no promises but for a maybe) that he thought he had everything but now it’s all gone. Sniff… sniff… Poor him. Passive aggression basically.

And Emily. Early on, she makes a promise to wait for her new-found army-man love while he goes off to war, thereby establishing her as a committed, invested lover. He is presumed dead for a week or six, and then reappears after all. Very much like early Ewan himself, actually, Captain Army Man says some disparaging things about trying to grow salmon in the desert, which establishes him as ‘not as Mr Right as we thought’, so instead of giving him time to see the good in the project (time that Ewan had in spades) she chooses the almost-divorced Ewan instead. So let’s review that: she’s effectively saying, ‘Mr Army Man, I know I promised myself to you, but I thought you were dead and I quickly discovered that I could love again. If you were actually dead, I would be released from my promise to you, so I’m just not going to tell my promise that you came back.’

4. Hackneyed, generic, PC statements about faith and sustainability and cross-culturalism

The sheik who bankrolls this crazy plan to put fish in his desert keeps telling everyone that they are people of faith, thereby establishing the cliche that we’re not actually all that different, you and I. In fact, we often really are exactly that different, although that’s beside the point. The point is that when ‘faith’ is left as open a concept as ‘you believe something that is not strictly factual’, then yes, every human is ‘of faith’. For Ewan — the doctor of science — to be transformed into this kind of ‘believer’ by the end is about as momentous as me realising that broccoli soup is better than I remember.

Oh, and then in the pit of despondency, when his hopes and his new-found faith (in nothing in particular) are both feeling poorly, he suddenly sees a fish and realises he can believe again, and he starts babbling about how they’ll try again, but this time smaller, and less arrogant, and they’ll consult with the local people, they’ll find out what they need, they’ll let them be involved and feel part of it, and they’ll do it a bit at a time, and make it sustainable, and occupy Wall Street, and save the Rhino, and everything that the kids-with-causes love. Thereby establishing him as a truly good guy and so-much-more-Mr-Right-than-he-seemed-at-first. I’m all for those good things in real life, but it is as corny a movie moment as has ever been written. It’s like having sixteen crates of National Geographic sponsor-appeal cards dropped onto your pelvis.

In short, this movie is like Hugh Grant. It’s foppish and sweet and funny and desperately obvious in generous measures, but it also has slept with the Deevine Mz Brown and deserves to get punched in the face lots more than it does.

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