“Do you ever feel we’re the victims of a practical joke?” Emily Blunt asks Ewan McGregor midway through Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a lugubrious adaptation of a purportedly comic novel. Unfortunately, the ill use made of the stars’ charms in this initially strained, then egregiously dopey mushfest can likely be credited to market-tested notions of modern popular romance, where the only sparks between the principals are Nicholas-like. The whimsy-heavy scenario finds a reel-toting Yemeni sheikh damming and flooding his native desert to stock it with British salmon for sport fishing, aided by investment consultant Blunt and fisheries scientist McGregor. She’s won over by the billionaire’s “visionary” prattling about faith and fish, he’s uptight and reluctant. It’s hate at first sight! Their early sparring is trite, but at least shows a pulse, and McGregor again seems to be channeling Alec Guinness, though as a fastidious middle-class drone rather than Jedi icon (and unusually, a Scot, though a poshly bourgeois one).
But naturally the big fish story is a mere vessel to sail around the scientist’s flagging marriage and the consultant’s M.I.A. soldier boyfriend (both Afghanistan and the global terror war are exploited with blithe utility by the filmmakers) and unite these battling Londoners as their quixotic job proves inspirational. Professional confectioner Lasse Hallström directs with the generic, bright dullness that’s become his default setting, and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, recently capable of spinning upbeat tales from a hacked-off limb and the torments of Dickensian slumdogs, barely breaks a sweat in connecting the dots between the circling couple and the Arab dreamer’s fanciful project. The sheikh himself (Amr Waked) is drawn without overt offense or a scintilla of originality (he speaks like a “good Indian” of a 1950s Hollywood western, and even accuses himself of “hubris” in a clunky bit of foreshadowing), but some nefarious countrymen pop up as a potentially lethal, subtitled threat: “The traitor must be stopped.” Kristin Scott Thomas appears to be having the most fun as a brusque, efficient press flack for the British PM, but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is so fatally mild and uncertain that it’s impossible to know whether the rod-and-reel foiling of a murder was meant as a gag or derring-do.