Getting Romantic with Friends with Kids and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Friends with Kids aims to be a romantic comedy for the not-so-new millennium, incorporating the perils of parenting, the death of marriage (at least when kids are involved), and the bonds of friendship into what eventually turns out to be standard romantic comedy fare.

The plot involves long-time best friends Jennifer Westfeldt (who also wrote and directed) and Adam Scott who watch in horror as the marriages of their best friends (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) collapse under the burdens of parenthood. Resolving not to let this happen to them—while also wanting a child in their own right—they mutually agree to a sex-for procreation-only-encounter—-thereby leaving themselves free to enjoy uncomplicated parenting-and the freedom to pursue romance with other people (in this case, Megan Fox and Ed Burns). Naturally this leads to all sorts of complications—none of which are entirely unexpected-and an ending that you (regretfully) see coming, in spite of all the modern trappings.

While the movie has a few amusing moments (courtesy of Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd), the screenplay often substitutes vulgarity for wit and insight. Kristen Wiig is criminally underused; she is seen as one part of a failing marriage (with Mr. Hamm) but we are really given no insight as to what went wrong (kids? an affair? leaving the toilet seat up?). Hamm and O’Dowd share a good scene in which a slightly drunk Hamm brings up all the flaws of the friends’ parenting arrangement, after which O’Dowd counters with a seemingly genuine (finally) outpouring of affection for Westfeldt. However the real problem is the difficulty of buying O’Dowd and Westfeldt as friends, let alone potential life partners. Westfeldt is generally appealing, but O’Dowd is all self-absorbed snark and no charm. I truly hoped that Westfeldt would end up with an engaging Ed Burns-and I doubt that’s what the moviemakers had in mind.

Imagine a Frank Capra movie blended with a 1950’s Ealing comedy, a helping of Local Hero, and some all-too-real spice in the form of Middle East tensions—and you can envision the mixed-but ultimately likable result that is Lasse Hallstrom’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Reluctant scientist Ewan McGregor allows himself to get involved in a very wealthy sheik’s seemingly hare-brained scheme to bring salmon fishing to Yemen. What helps McGregor overcome his initial reluctance is a deteriorating marriage coupled with a slowly developing attraction to Emily Blunt as the sheik’s gal Friday. Kristin Scott Thomas is also onboard-and tartly amusing–as a crafty government official who is not above using any means to bolster Great Britain-and her own political standing. The movie is a little uneven as it tries to blend old-fashioned romance, political satire, heartwarming whimsy-and the war in the Middle East, with its attendant casualties and extremists. However, what makes this an affecting cinematic endeavor is the appeal of the two leads: McGregor and Blunt are a very likable and endearing pair of leads, as their friendship slowly and believably evolves into romance, while allowing for some glimmers of doubt and disappointment. The movie is by no means flawless, but the charms of Blunt and McGregor elevate this into a warmly engaging, feel-good romance.