The cheerfully irreverent Yorkshire-bred screenwriter Simon Beaufoy has built a buoyantly exportable career by creating remarkable lives for seemingly unremarkable Everypeople. Beaufoy is drawn to the transforming power of quixotic struggle: In The Full Monty, unemployed English steelworkers stripped their way to happiness (and to transatlantic box-office gold). Slumdog Millionaire catapulted an inner-city urchin from rags to game-show riches on a wave of Bollywood song and dance. And in an unusual twist on the inspirational, James Franco cut off his arm in 127 Hours to avert a sticky ending under a rock.
Beaufoy took the miserabilism out of working-class misery, which may be why The Full Monty spawned so many imitators -- notably the horribly pandering Calendar Girls and the indifferent Made in Dagenham, both directed by Nigel Cole. But few have Beaufoy's deft way with a cheeky one-liner or his canny grasp of the surefire crowd-pleaser.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, adapted by Beaufoy from a Paul Torday novel and directed by Lasse Holstrom, has all the trappings of a respectably grossing pop indie. The movie lifts two regular folks with names like Fred and Harriet out of the daily grind and the funk of unsatisfying unions, and whisks them off to the Glamorous Abroad. There waits love, landscape and a mission grander than merely chugging along.
Actually, our heroes are regular like James Franco is regular — meaning Ewan McGregor, his sexy twinkle insufficiently dimmed by woolly cardies, and Emily Blunt, a sight for the sorest eyes even in cap-sleeved frocks.
Fred is a fisheries expert; Harriet's the London rep of a Yemeni sheik, a billionaire 1-percenter but a good egg nonetheless. (He's played by the gorgeous Egyptian actor Amr Waked, looking delighted at having scored a role more interesting than the usual terrorist gig.) Sheikh Muhammed lives to fish, and his impossible dream is to bring peace and plenty to his war-torn country by making the desert bloom with prime Scottish salmon.
Mission impossible, says Fred with more spirit than he's shown in years of marriage to a glass-ceiling-raiser with no time for conjugal sex (a very good Rachael Stirling, making the most of a ball-busting role only a man could write.)
You don't know the sheik, says Harriet.
And though Harriet pines for a handsome soldier (Tom Mison) whom she just met and who has gone missing in Afghanistan, off she flies with Fred on a libido-charging trip to Yemen. (Actually it's Jordan and Morocco, among the few countries in the region not busy with an Arab Spring.)
Once there, Harriet and Fred flower into looser apparel and looser tongues, making common cause in the service of humanitarian aid. Terrorists show their faces briefly, but even they can't match the wreckage created by Kristin Scott Thomas, who romps away with the best lines as the prime minister's publicist, a woman aquiver with lust for any photo opportunity she can engineer.
You can pretty much guess the rest, but the crisply sweet banter and the halting intimacy that grows between two shy people with a common goal more than makes up for a wildly implausible plot. In the end Salmon Fishing reassures more than it excites, but all props are due to a commercial movie that helps demolish the stereotype of the Arab as bloodthirsty primitive.
It might be argued, and it probably will, that the movie locks the sheik into another tired trope — the Eastern holy man bringing his ancient faith to bear on the secular hubris of the West. Still, there's something immensely huggable about a potentate who wades into a Scottish river and winds down his own affirming speech with, "I should stop talking bollocks now." Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.