For anyone who wishes the movies could be more like 1985 or 1958, there’s Lasse Hallström. The man who brought us “Chocolat,’’ “The Cider House Rules,’’ and “The Shipping News’’ now brings glad tidings from the Middle East, where his smoothness and stultifying good taste abet the story of a handsome Yemeni sheik who would like a dry riverbed hydrated and populated with fish for his leisure.
OK, OK. You caught me. The movie’s not about the sheik at all. It’s about Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a Scottish scientist who reluctantly supervises the transfer of the fish, the sheik’s British investment strategist, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who recruits the scientist into going along with this folly, and the big vat of “I think you’re swell’’ they both fall into. It’s all been called “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,’’ just like Paul Torday’s 2007 novel, and, except for some despicable behavior in the later going, it couldn’t be more harmless.
Once Alfred meets Harriet in the lobby of her company, there’s almost nowhere else for this movie to go but cute. That should suffice. Right now, there’s really no resisting Blunt, who keeps applying alchemy to nothingness. I don’t believe she’s a Harriet, but part of her allure comes from turning weeds into roses. She’s as much a gardener as she is an actor. It’s obvious why Alfred is drawn to her. He’s in a sleepy marriage to a workaholic (Rachael Stirling) too busy to notice him, and Harriet is comically, snortingly alive. So much so that when the British soldier (Tom Mison) she’s been dating is called to fight in Afghanistan, he asks her to wait for him.
Current events and one event involving a massive current interfere with everyone’s plans. You can see what Hallström and the screenwriter Simon Beaufoy might have been hoping to pull off. The movie has the makings of a decent screwball comedy. Alfred is an intelligent drip. Harriet is a spark of sorts. And they have professional, domestic, and natural obstacles to work out. There’s even some good support. Kristin Scott Thomas power-talks through her role as the prime minister’s press officer, who suspects the sheik and his new river would provide a feel-good photo op for Anglo-Arab relations.
You welcome Thomas’s enthusiasm, but the film is so mellow that her scenes actually feel over-caffeinated. Better is Amr Waked as the sheik. He’s so easily charismatic that, at times, you don’t know why anyone bothered with the rest of the movie. Putting his native Scottish accent to rare use in a movie, McGregor delivers a good line or two, but when is he going to get his mood back up? Feeling glum, he observes: “I don’t know anyone who goes to church anymore. We go to Target on Sunday.’’
That line says it all. There’s no passion or determination or lust in this movie. After a while even Blunt appears to be sleepwalking from aisle to aisle. Everything here happens - simply because it must. It’s a movie, and if something has to happen it might as well be this. When people say that Hollywood no longer makes anything for them, they are wishing they could have more of a movie like this. Hallström makes handsome films, often from good or popular books, films in which all the edges and angles have been shaved away and the problems presented without stress.
This is a director who’s come to the conclusion that people need a break from their troubles, from Michael Bay and Lisbeth Salander, that we’d like to feel good even amid clear and present danger, despite the realities of the fictional world in which he’s working. His movies are old-fashioned in that sense. They’re escapist. “The Cider House Rules’’ was subversively so: an abortion drama done up as a Hallmark card. “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’’ has war and cursing and passable sex. But, proudly, it has no conviction to offer, just the comforts of its genericness. Hallström knows where some of us want to live. Target is church.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.