Thursday, March 22, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Being Flynn

“Connection, I just can’t make no connection. But all I want to
do is to get back to you.”   Mick Jagger, Keith Richards (but primarily Keith, 1967)
Review by Ken Burke      Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Ecology and romance coexist in this rather strange story of overcoming seemingly impossible geopolitical and interpersonal odds just because it’s better for all involved.
                                                                Being Flynn
There’s nothing worse than your difficult dad disappearing from your life except for when he shows up again, forcing both of you to confront your stubborn lifestyles.
            Take a good look at the two guys in the photo to your right.  I haven’t seen either of them for the last 7 days and was almost prepared to fly to England and/or Yemen to see if I could find a trace of one or both.  You see, when attending a screening of Lasse Hallström’s (Chocolat [2000], The Cider House Rules [1999]) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen last weekend at a theatre which shall remain nameless (because I normally much enjoy attending films there and then later eating in the neighborhood) we were down to roughly the last 15 minutes of the screening when the projector bulb failed with apparently no way to replace it in a timely manner, so we all just had to pack up and leave, never knowing what happened to Sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked, on the left) and Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) after a wall of water released from a dam came crashing down on them as they were standing in a river, celebrating the success of their seemingly crazy mission to bring salmon fishing to a small desert country on the Saudi Arabian peninsula.  I did get a free pass to a future showing, but given all of the plot contrivances that had been set in place over the last 1 ½ hours I needed to know what happened to these guys right now!!—an answer which was not forthcoming that night (although a delicious Italian dinner was, salmon fettuccini to be exact; it just seemed appropriate … and tasty).  So, in order to come to closure on this film and write a complete rather than a truncated review I set off in search of information. (I was once in a theatre where the film had to be stopped for awhile while an unfortunate patron was taken away in an ambulance, and there have been several times where the film stock breaks and we all had to wait for a splice to be done, but this is the only other time for me with a unresolved projection problem since I was at a midnight screening in 1975 of Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [1966, his debut film, where he simply bought the Japanese International Secret Police: Key of Keys (Senkichi Taniguchi, 1965) and added completely new dialogue to turn it into a search for a precious egg salad recipe] when the projector just broke completely; I never did finish that one … Wait a minute!  What’s that damn thing I pay a monthly fee for and never use … oh yeah, Netflix Instant Streaming!  You know I might just watch that one tonight, but first I need to finish this fish story.)

            Over the next few days I tried going to another theatre about 20 miles away in hopes of sneaking into an adjacent auditorium after watching Being Flynn and catching the finale of Salmon Fishing, but, alas, my Yemen film was assigned to the large theatre in that complex, inaccessible to the one I was in, so that strategy didn’t work.  (It must have been in the ginormous dome room because Emily Blunt has such a huge following in the San Francisco Bay Area where we’re so fashion-conscious and she was so fabulously mean, and fashionable, in The Devil Wears Prada [Daniel Frankel, 2006] when she didn’t even have to remember her character name because it’s the same as her own; that Emily was one of the minions of the fierce Vogue-like editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly [Meryl Streep], her senior personal assistant, known in whisper mode as “Miss Piggy’s secretary” [Blunt parodied herself well in The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011) where she actually was Miss Piggy’s secretary with Piggy as the editor of Paris Vogue, a marvelous intertextual twist of both films—all of which is a complete wacko ramble by me from both Salmon Fishing and Emily Blunt, a fine actress who had nothing to do with what theatre her latest film is playing in, but I’m a little crazy after trying to track down the end of the fish tale so don’t blame her for any of this].)  After wasting a lot of time on the Internet looking for what seems to be a non-existent detailed synopsis (oh, what pithy plotlines these Web weavers offer sometimes), I went another 15 miles down the freeway to the nearest bookstore (Thanks, Amazon!) to see what happens in the original Paul Torday 2007 novel; the book was in stock so I quickly skimmed through the final pages (sorry, Barnes and Noble, but no interest in buying it, although it’s written in a very interesting manner: no standard narration but instead excerpts from Dr. Jones’ diary, various emails, transcripts, etc.), but to my great surprise I found this was no satisfying romance at all but instead was more of a political commentary with a rather grim wrap-up that was already in a different direction from the film by the point of the fatal tidal wave (more on that later in the review; for now, let me ruin the film for you first, then the novel)
          So, I was ready to follow my wife’s always enlightened advice and just make up my own ending because no one ever reads this blog anyway it seemed obvious enough where the plot was headed (although not if you had bought and read the book).  Fortunately, just before I started down the road to being a political speech writer with no concern for his client’s actual record (Romney, Santorum, call off the libel lawyers and look at one of Newt’s history books on what you’ve actually supported in the past; you might be even more surprised at your own “evolvings” than readers of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen when they see that story transformed for the movies), I had a chance contact with regular reader (Wow! There are some after all.) Michaele O’Leary-Reiff, who had seen the film on the same night but at a different theatre than I did and graciously filled me in on what I would have never guessed had I assumed that screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours [Danny Boyle, 2010], Slumdog Millionaire [Boyle, 2008, which among its many other Oscars included one for Beaufoy writing the Best Adapted Screenplay]) had slavishly followed the original narrative.  And, why you ask, didn’t I just go back with my free ticket and see Salmon Fishing again after the theatre crew got that damn projector bulb replaced?  Frankly, because while it’s quirky, comic in many places and dreamily romantic in others—and puts one of the most engaging, non-stereotyped Arab main characters into a Hollywood film that I’ve seen since the heyday of Omar Sharif—I don’t think it’s really worth a second viewing, so, here, let me put all my travails (and travels) to good use for you and then we can move on to something else.

            Both the comic and romantic aspects of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen are carried well by the stars, the aforementioned Blunt (sweet and attractive as ever, even when she’s not helping snap the whip of high fashion) as Harriet, an investment firm representative for the Sheik, and McGregor (less dashing here than as young Obi-Wan Kenobi in all these early-episode Star Wars films but a decent and deserving guy overall, similar to his character Oliver Fields, son of Hal Fields (Christopher Plummer’s recent Best Supporting Actor turn in Beginners [Mike Mills]), as Dr. Jones, henceforth known, by his preference, as “Fred” (just as he finally gets casual enough to address his colleague [and growing romantic interest] in this mad enterprise as “Harriet” rather than the amusing mouthful of propriety, “Ms. Chetwode-Talbot”).  Despite our intended initial annoyance at his snotty bureaucratic manner when Fred, as a fish expert in a British governmental agency recruited by Harriett’s company, initially dismisses the whole concept of bringing 10,000 temperate-zone animals into a hot, dry climate—before understanding that the Sheik has already provided adequate water via building a dam and that the intended location is a mountainous Yemeni region that theoretically could support the salmon—we soon come to realize that he’s just dedicated to his profession (and the well-being of the fish)—just as the Sheik is dedicated to not only bringing more self-sufficiency to the poor in his country but also providing the combination of personal accomplishment and spiritual serenity that comes with fishing (having tried a few times as a kid on the Texas gulf coast and caught very little it’s hard for me to fully appreciate that last part, but it worked for my mother so I’ll take his [and her] word for it).  Fred’s also in a marriage that’s seemingly never developed past the propriety level, where his wife, Mary (Rachael Stirling), is distant and preoccupied with her career, they both have the manner of being each other’s clients rather than lovers, and Mary assumes Fred’s (non-existent) affair with Harriet which gives her “just” cause to storm out of the marriage.  Due to circumstances imposed on Fred (a domino effect working its way down from the Prime Minister level, based on a desperate need to find a “feel-good” story on Anglo-Arab relations to counter the constant bad news for the West coming from the Middle East [more on that later as well]), his job depends on cooperation with the Sheik’s fish fantasy so soon he’s in Yemen, where both he and Harriet begin to let their guard down over the unfulfilled aspects of their lives, including for her the constant worry about what’s happened to the military hunk, Capt. Robert Mayers (Tom Mison), that she fell in lusty love with just three weeks before he was shipped off to secret duty in Afghanistan (as best we know) and now has fallen into a black hole of communication, despite news reports that imply he’s MIA at best.  It’s clear that Harriet’s intended for Fred, but as this story is played as a romance with comic overtones there must be the necessary roadblocks before proper consummation of the obvious narrative intentions.

            The roadblocks for both Fred and Harriet come frequently from the PM’s Press Officer, fierce and conniving Patricia Maxwell (played triumphantly by Kristin Scott Thomas), who’s the one putting pressure on Fred’s boss that gets Fred swept into this PR juggernaut; she’s also the one who finds the opportunity for taking the triumph of the salmon adapting to their new home up another notch when Capt. Mayers returns alive and is secretly brought by her to Yemen for a surprise reunion with Harriet just when she and Fred had finally found the connection we’d all expected ever since Salmon Fishing's trailers were released months ago.  (Just like the farm-raised salmon who saved the day by responding to their genetic instincts and properly swimming upstream, so have these trailers created proper anticipation for this film and helped move its profits upstream last weekend as it broadened into many more theatres [62] and came out with one of the best per-screen box-office averages of the 100 top films measured, beaten in income average only by a couple of others playing on a tiny number of screens as well as by the heavyweight winner, 21 Jump Street [Phil Lord, Chris Miller], which trounced everyone with it’s $36 million haul but had over 3,000 screens to work with:  see  As the salmon are properly finding themselves at home in Yemen everyone is celebrating, even as an anti-Sheik Yemini faction is trying an assassination attempt (because he’s perverting “God’s will” by trying to alter the desert environment) through opening the flood gates of the huge dam that provides water not only for the salmon but also for new farming and grazing opportunities for the local populace.  Everything is building dramatically to a narrative head … then suddenly the screen goes dark in my theatre!  But, thanks to Michaele, I now know that all’s well that ends well, even if water-logged, because neither Fred nor the Sheik die in the flood, Capt. Mayers concedes that Harriet belongs with Fred, and while there’s initial concern that the salmon were killed a healthy one is found which buoys everyone’s spirits with the understanding that the project will continue and expand, verifying all that our lovers (and their forward-thinking benefactor) had hoped for.

          OK, film ending ruined (but, hey, if you really cared you’d have seen it by now, and don’t forget our ongoing Spoiler Alert at the bottom of every review [and on our home page] that narrative details will fall where they must in these essays) so now let me ruin the book as well, along with noting how I think it’s unlikely this story would have even made it to press today had it followed rather than preceded the terrible hostilities in Yemen since January 2011 in response to “Arab Spring” revolutions that in this case finally led to the resignation of tyrannical President Ali Abdullah Saleh, finalized this February when Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was voted in although great turmoil continues in the country with an Al Qaeda affiliate operating in the south, the target of U.S. military activity, completely undermining the romantic situations in the book and the film.  The novel undermines these possibilities anyway with a completely different direction, in which it’s the actual Prime Minister of Britain, rather than one of his lesser Ministers, who travels to Yemen for the big event but then both he and the Sheik are killed in the flood; Capt. Mayers is killed also, but on a secret mission into Iran, so heart-broken Harriet has already left before the waters rage and seemingly never sees Fred again (as she quits her job and moves onward to somewhere); the Sheik’s family has no interest in the salmon project so Fred is back to mundane duties that take him into rural England from where he keeps in contact with Mary, now relocated to Geneva, and even meets up with her occasionally to maintain their essentially dead marriage; and, finally, the British government considers the whole situation to be a disaster of monumental proportions that needs to be forgotten as soon as possible.  Beaufoy certainly took it upon himself to change everything of significance for a more pleasing Slumdog-like result, which will likely pay off better for all concerned in the film’s accounting office (the investors behind John Carter [Andrew Stanton] should be so lucky, although that one’s doing better overseas in China, Russia, and Mexico than it is here), but if you’re open to a downbeat film that seems to be more true to its source material you might prefer Being Flynn.

            What Paul Weitz gives us as director-screenwriter of Being Flynn seems to capture what I can understand of the real Nick Flynn’s account of his life with his difficult father as recounted in his award-winning book Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir (2004 [At least as I interpret various accounts of his autobiography. Now, you don’t really expect me to investigate two actual books in one week do you?  Count yourself lucky that I even know they exist).  The photo here illustrates much of what’s wrong with this relationship as Jon Flynn (Robert Di Nero) gives a pen to his son, Nick (Paul Dano), with the verbal “inscription”: “From one writer to another.”  The problems with this potentially touching encounter are: (1) the pen is just a piece of dysfunctional junk that Jon found on a city street so that in operation it just squirts ink and gives Nick no sense of his father’s investment in him, (2) Jon is only a “writer” in his own mind (where he equates himself with Mark Twain and J. D. Salinger, even though he hasn’t even published anything yet), and (3) it’s indicative of the ongoing struggle even in the narration of the film for each of these Flynns to try to take command of the story, as we begin with Jon’s account in voice-over, then his perspective is replaced by Nick’s VO, and the battle continues throughout the film as each of them tries to assert his vision of the relationship:  Each generation of this family sees himself as the definitive version of the Flynn “dynasty,” yet neither one of them really has the right yet to claim anything so marked for prosperity.  (Sorry, real Nick behind the screen, but beyond putting your difficult life into print for others to contemplate I can’t say that you’d rate much more than a footnote—if that—about the essential issues of the 21st century; although, Weitz’s writing of this film is quite effective [and, I concede, may well be that way because of the prosaic quality of the original], especially with lines such as Nick’s at a job interview: “More meaningful?  What does that mean?”)

          Nick’s yet to come into himself as a realized adult, but that’s not to say that Jon, a real-but-sad-reality version of a contemporary urban self-made character, has much more to offer with his life “accomplishments”: alcoholic, ex-con, self-delusional, failure as husband and father.  At some point we have to wonder why we’re even watching such pathetic excuses for human beings (even compared to his father, Nick, with his cynicism and addictive personality, is no treasure either), except that De Niro (in partial Taxi Driver [Martin Scorsese, 1976] mode, in that he has such an occupation for a short time in this new film until he falls asleep on the job, crashes into another car, and soon finds himself both jobless and homeless; at least he’s not homicidal this time, except for being stubbornly self-destructive) and Dano (struggling with a complex case of father-avoidance which has led him to also avoid connection to just about anything else as well) do such a superlative job of giving the Flynns commanding presence on the big screen in a film with an effectively crisp pace and consistently snappy, well-crafted writing (appropriate for a film about two men whose lives are defined in their own minds as masters of the written word; Nick even turns his nightly logs of shelter activities into mini-short stories, much to the disinterest of his fellow staff members who just want to wrap it up and get home for the night).

            At one point in the film Jon says that his magnum opus should be titled Memoirs of a Moron, which may be as honest as he ever allows himself to be in this dueling narration of the shortcomings of the Flynn family.  Certainly his wife, Jody (Julianne Moore), would easily accept that description as she has long ago given up on anything remotely resembling a sympathetic feeling for her constantly problematical ex-spouse.  There are other recognizable faces in this film (mainly Lili Taylor as Joy, one of Nick’s shelter co-workers, and Wes Studi as Captain, a former down-and-outer who’s worked his way up from being a homeless castaway into a stabile life where he’s determined to help others, including Nick, to find self-acceptance and purpose), but it’s Moore who has a meatier, better-realized role than anyone except the two male leads and it’s she who occupies the highest moral ground among the Flynns, despite her sad suicide just before the current story begins (fortunately we get to see plenty of her in flashback scenes, establishing her difficult and ultimately lost bond with Nick). As always, she brings dignity and substance to her character, this time as a drastically-overworked menial-worker mother who gives all she can, but still not enough, to her abandoned son who realizes only when confronted with the reality of his absent father how much that man had drained from his mother before leaving her with the crushing responsibility of giving some direction to their child, a challenge Nick slowly takes within the ongoing story and maybe has embraced by the time this feuding father and son finally find some sense of reconciliation—or at least toleration—by the end of the film.

            Nick constantly fights against his father’s heritage—although they finally meet after 18 years of separation, first because Jon needs a place to store his stuff when his apartment manager kicks him out after attacking his downstairs neighbors and their sound system, then because Jon wanders into the Harbor Street Inn shelter where Nick has taken employment in an attempt to bring some meaning into his wandering life—emphatically stating that “I’m not my father,” a retort to Jon’s assertion that “You are me.”  To Nick, Jon is the embodiment of all that’s missing, distorted, or cruel about his life, even though he does make an effort to bring his dad back to the shelter after he’s thrown out for unruly behavior (with Nick having voted in favor of that verdict, which only estranges the two more intensely)—but Jon lives by unruly rules, with his confidence that a spike-tipped baseball bat is all the argument he needs to bring resolution to any problem.  If Di Nero’s interpretation of this failed father reasonably resembles the actual Jonathan Flynn, then my heart—but not my handouts, which would immediately be spent on cheap vodka—goes out to this guy who’s seemingly underlying altruism (“We’re put on this Earth to help other people.”) is usually negated by his random solipsism.  (“Life is gathering material.” [But for what, says I, wondering if Jon will ever put his lifelong collection of experiences into anything positive for himself or anyone else.])  If there’s any resolution to his defiant wanderings it comes with the admission to Nick that “I made you, but you’re not me,” although Nick does give some structure to Jon’s self-image by serving as editor of his father’s actually-existent-but-incoherent “masterpiece,” although we don’t get to learn much more about that book because the film wraps up with Nick finally publishing a collection of his own poems which his father hears firsthand when he decides to attend a public reading.  There he also meets Nick’s new baby and wife (a black woman, whom we can only hope Nick has connected with through love and not an attempt to spite his father, whose racism and homophobia are well documented early in the story), whereupon Jon notes that Nick will get “the last word,” although it’s Jon who ironically “gives” such a narrator’s prize to his son by actually speaking the last words of the film as it cuts to the end credits, so the tension between the two has yet to be resolved as I read this interesting, ambiguous ending. 

            Neither of the Flynns are guys I’d particularly like to hang around with, but I credit the actual Nick for giving us a life story that forces contemplation of events and personalities that aren’t in the normally-desirable zone just as I credit Dano and especially Di Nero with bringing an extraordinary sense of intrigue to a couple of humanity’s more flawed specimens.  Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is certainly an unusual premise (although one that seems even more implausible based on actual events in that country today [3/22/12], when U.S. off-shore shelling has just killed 29 members of Al-Qaeda) but in its cinematic adaptation turns into a very predictable romance (looks like I could have gotten away with that conjectured ending that Nina assumed after all) which results in a satisfying enough story if you’re looking for something to raise your spirits, but if you’d prefer a bit more bite in your viewing aftertaste, especially if you can stomach sudden, unclear endings, then I’d recommend Being Flynn more actively (or maybe I’m just more attuned to it because of unresolved father issues—which may be the best reason for some viewers to stay away—while romance complications are just an amusing situation to watch from afar because this is an area in which I’m blessedly quite content for decades now [thanks to that wonderful wife I keep referencing], even if the fish aren't swimming upstream for everyone else).

          If you’d like to know more about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen here are some suggested links: (short interview with director Hallström)

            If you’d like to know more about Being Flynn here are some suggested links: (interview with the real Nick Flynn)

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