Jump Cut: Doppelgängers

Having seen so many movies, made note of your favorite directors, and developed crushes on certain actors and actresses, do you ever watch a movie convinced that one of the performers on-screen is—contrary to the credits you’ve just read—another actor entirely? You’re not alone. What follows is a completely subjective list of acting doppelgängers, people who, to my eyes, bear more than a passing resemblance to one of their cohorts. I call some sets “twins,” and it’s been a bit of a struggle finding photos that can accurately show you how I could ever mistake them for each other. Admittedly, though, I’m so familiar with some of these performers that it’s impossible for me to confuse them with anyone else. Most of the pairs below represent struggles I had in my childhood identifying who’s who. Please feel free to sound out in the comments section below the pairs who regularly confuse you, too. (For the record, I extracted these photos from Google Images after conducting basic searches.)

Let’s start things off with a pair of actresses whose heydays were in the 1980s. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for better photos to bring out the physical similarities between Kathleen Turner (left) and Kelly McGillis, as she hangs on Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) co-star Tom Cruise. They’re both sporting off-the-shoulder tops, accentuating their wavy hair. Both stars were sex symbols in their day. Turner made her big-screen debut as a femme fatale in Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) and later embodied the curvaceous cartoon Jessica Rabbit with just her husky voice in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis, 1988). Besides Top Gun, McGillis was in Witness (Peter Weir, 1985), as Harrison Ford’s Amish love interest, and in The Accused (Jonathan Kapaln, 1988), as the attorney for Jodie Foster’s brutal rape victim, a decidedly less sexy role. I should note that I only think they look alike when they were younger, as today the women couldn’t look any more different. Presently, we don’t see either actress much, particularly McGillis since she came out of the closet in 2009. Turner, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, has been busy walking the floorboards, notably starring in a theatrical production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2005.

Next we have the British actor Ben Miller—not to be confused with Ben Miles of Coupling fame—and his lookalike the Welsh comic Rob Brydon (right). I first spotted Miller in Johnny English (Peter Howitt, 2003) as Rowan Atkinson’s sidekick Bough, and since he’s made a name for himself playing super-serious corporate or governmental honchos, including James Lester on the silly BBC sci-fi series Primeval (2007-2011). Rob Brydon, on the other hand, I’m much more familiar with. He starred in the 2000-2003 series Marion & Geoff as a taxi driver who records confessional monologues while stalking outside the residence his ex-wife, Marion, shares with the man she left him for, Geoff, of course. You might know Brydon as “Himself” in the Michael Winterbottom classics Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and The Trip (2010), opposite Steve Coogan, who also plays a version of himself in those movies. It may not be easy to tell from these thumbnail photos (the only way I could publish images of all the doppelgängers), but Miller and Brydon look so much alike that when you search Google Images for pictures of either one, “Ben Miller Rob Brydon” is a suggested search term. Hell, even I needed to look multiple times to identify who’s who in this image that I found online with the actors already juxtaposed:

Ben Miller (left) and Rob Brydon, or so I believe.

Speaking of Steve Coogan, I think he looks a lot like Jack Davenport (right), from the Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters. He played Commodore Norrington who so wanted Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan but lost out to Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp’s swashbucklers. He’s currently on the NBC backstage musical soap opera Smash (2011-present), which I’ve never seen. As a fan of Steve Coogan’s work, including I’m Alan Partridge (1997, 2002) and Saxondale (2006-2007) to name but a few, I should make it clear that I don’t actually mistake these actors for each other. Searching for comparable photos was tricky, as Coogan typically has long, wavy hair these days, and Davenport has short and spiky hair. There’s something about the way they play pompous or clueless that makes me sense a closeness. At right, Davenport appears in character as the immature Steve from the British comedy series Coupling (2000-2004), and Coogan, at left, is the arrogant TV presenter Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002), which is my favorite film.

My sister is going to shake her head when she reads this: I continually mistake two actresses who are on the rise, Rachel McAdams (left) and Elizabeth Banks. My sister thinks I’m crazy, but hear me out. It has to do with their toothy grins, broad jawlines, and wide foreheads. It doesn’t help any that they regularly appear as blondes (I believe they’re both natural brunettes) and balance their filmographies with pretty much equal helpings of comedy and drama these days. In other words, when I watch a film that stars either one of them, I imagine that the other may have also been on the casting director’s list of actresses for the same role. For example, despite writer-director Woody Allen’s more pointed search for actors to fill parts in his almost yearly produced movies, I can see Elizabeth Banks as Inez, Owen Wilson’s shrill and obnoxious fiancee in Midnight in Paris (2011), a role that McAdams played. Similarly, isn’t it possible to see McAdams in Man on a Ledge (Asger Leth, 2012) or People Like Us (Alex Kurtzman, 2012) instead of Banks? Or is my sister right; am I crazy?

Let’s move Down Under and take a look at Noah Taylor (left) and Ben Mendelsohn. These Aussie actors are hardly ever up for the same parts nowadays, their physiognomies seemingly worlds apart. Mendelsohn makes for a much more imposing presence now, having played baddies in the superb 2010 Australian crime family drama Animal Kingdom (David Michôd) and the straight-to-DVD Nicolas Cage-Nicole Kidman starrer Trespass (Joel Shumacher, 2011), whereas Taylor looks like he’s withering away nowadays, as evidenced in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Richard Ayoade’s fun directorial debut Submarine (2010), movies in which he played each of the teen protagonists’ withdrawn dad. When I was younger, I used to mistake them for each other all the time (it’s in their mouths and speech!), but now they probably couldn’t be any more different. By the way, to add to the confusion, they have both appeared in the same films, including The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) and The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005).

In much the same way that time has made Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn look less and less alike, so too has it placed the doppelgängers Henry Thomas and Jeremy Davies on opposite ends of the spectrum. I guess what I’m trying to say is that today, the skinny child-star Thomas (left) has put on weight, particularly in his face, while Davies seems only to have gotten thinner and thinner. But look at them in these old photos; don’t they at least look like brothers? At least grant me that Thomas looks more like Davies than he does Brad Pitt or Aidan Quinn, who both played his older siblings in the classic melodrama Legends of the Fall (Edward Zwick, 1994). We haven’t seen much of Thomas lately, but Davies plays the sniveling snake Dickie Bennett on FX’s Justified (2010-present), a show whose just-aired third season I tried several times to watch but just couldn’t get into. I think these guys resemble each other because they have the same face shapes and they have been in films where they weren’t, shall we say, the manliest of men. See how soft-spoken Thomas is in I Capture the Castle (Tim Fywell, 2003) and Davies is in CQ (Roman Coppola, 2001).

The next pairing arrives courtesy of my dad, who hit the nail on the head when he said that the English actresses Gabrielle Anwar (left) and Emily Blunt look an awful lot alike. It’s impossible to mistake them, really, as there are more than thirteen years between them, but the similarities in their features are striking. It all hinges on their mouths, though Anwar may have a greater overbite than Blunt (sorry, there’s no nicer way of putting it!). If you do a Google image search for each woman, you will see how they both prefer to pout when posing on the red carpet, and neither likes to give big, toothy smiles (yes, these stills are something of a rarity on Google). Anwar had a bigger film career in the 1990s, appearing in such hits as Scent of a Woman (Martin Brest, 1992) and The Three Musketeers (Stephen Herek, 1993), which was beloved in my childhood. She has since re-found fame on the USA TV series Burn Notice (2007-present). Blunt, on the other hand, has been on the ascendant since her breakout role in The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006).

A few nights ago, I caught, again, Dutch writer-director Marleen Gorris’s Oscar-winning Antonia, better known in English as Antonia’s Line (1995). Watching Jan Decleir, the famous Dutch actor (left), I couldn’t believe how much he looks like the beloved English actor Jim Carter, probably best known as Mr. Carson, the butler of Downton Abbey (2010-present), ITV and PBS’s pop culture phenomenon about the fading British aristocracy at the beginning of the 20th century. But oh, how do I love Jim Carter! He’s in everything: Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998); Cranford (2007, 2009), which is one of my favorite British miniseries; and Bright Young Things (Stephen Fry, 2003), where he makes a hilarious cameo. I haven’t seen even the smallest percentage of Decleir’s many credits, but I remember him especially from Character (Mike van Diem, 1997), which also took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (for the Netherlands). The actors are roughly the same age (Decleir is two years older); isn’t their resemblance uncanny?!

So far, all of these acting doppelgängers have been contemporaries. They have all lived in the same era (our current time). But now I want to offer a different kind of comparison. Turner Classic Movies has featured Englishman Leslie Howard in marathons of his movies every Tuesday night this month. Although his credits span from the 1910s up to 1942 (his last movie was the Howard-directed R.J. Mitchell biopic The First of the Few aka Spitfire, which premiered in the U.S. less than two weeks after he died, his plane shot down by Germans), I see a lot of the actor Michael Fassbender in him. Catching the hilarious comedy Stand-In (Tay Garnett, 1937) on TCM, I was struck by how Howard’s uptight New York-based banker, out of his element as the head of a struggling movie studio in Hollywood, reminded me of Fassbender’s suave British Lieutenant Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009). They’re very different characters, but the way they carry themselves seemed very similar to me. And the more I studied Howard, who I might add, is probably most recognizable as Ashley in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, et. al, 1939), the more I could discern Fassbender’s affinities to him: they both have very long, narrow visages with tall foreheads; extra slim, long, and narrow torsos; and when Fassbender plays posh Englishmen (or androids), as in Basterds or Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012), he sounds a lot like Howard, who also directed and starred in Pygmalion (1938) as the condescending Professor Henry Higgins. My DVR is virtually full of Howard movies; I’m as drawn to him as I am to the magnetic Fassbender.

Since I’m in an historical mood, I thought I would point out that I have actually confused the younger versions of Karen Allen (left) and Brooke Adams. Allen is probably most known for playing Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), a role she later reprised in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008), and Jeff Bridges’s alarmed wife in Starman (John Carpenter, 1984). Adams is two years older and has more credits from the 1970s, including her starring role in Terrence Malick’s debut Days of Heaven (1978). I could never remember that it was Adams in Heaven and not Allen, Allen in Starman and not Adams. Both actresses have widely spaced eyes, wide faces with high cheekbones, and dimples in their chins. Not to mention, they both have pretty low voices. They don’t look so alike these days, and they haven’t been productive in recent years.

This last pair of celebrity lookalikes aren’t actors. Well, one is: Robert Carlyle (left), the prolific Scottish thesp best known for his stunning turn as Begbie in Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996), which is incidentally one of my favorite films of all time. His doppelgänger? Hockey great Wayne Gretzky! From 1979 to 1999, he played with one of the four following teams: the Edmonton Oilers, LA Kings, St. Louis Blues, and NY Rangers. If you cannot see the resemblance, I don’t know what to say. But a little back-story is in order. I really should credit my dad with this comparison because he refers to Carlyle, jokingly, as “Wayne Gretzky.” He learned of Carlyle when the actor starred in the 1997 British sleeper hit The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo), where he wore his hair blond, thereby more closely resembling a young Gretzky. So whenever he catches a glimpse of him today, usually on my TV screen, he’ll ask, “Who’s in this? Oh, Wayne Gretzky!” even though Carlyle, to my knowledge, hasn’t been blond since. You can currently check him out on ABC’s Once Upon a Time (2011-present), where he looks like the ghost of his former self. Whereas Carlyle has turned hauntingly thin, Gretzky, who’s less than four months older, has filled out more in middle age.

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Long Take: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Comes Up With an Easy Catch

Viewed July 18, 2012

On Tuesday, Alison Nastasi of Flavorwire posted ten movie titles she has deemed the quirkiest in the history of cinema. Her list runs the gamut from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) to Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance art piece Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006). I would venture to add 2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lasse Hallström’s latest exercise in milquetoast filmmaking, to this group. Released in March 2012 in the U.S., the film went on to receive generally favorable reviews, or so says Rotten Tomatoes, but it failed to catch lots of fish in the audience pool. Could it have been the off-putting and somewhat confusing title? (When I mentioned to my father and brother that I had rented the movie on DVD, they both seemed puzzled by the title. Who calls Yemen “The Yemen”? With a shrug, I suggested that perhaps Yemen is like Gambia, whose short name is technically The Gambia.)

Based on Paul Torday’s novel of the same name, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen charts the relationship between a British financial consultant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), and a government fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), whom she contacts to help with a project that one of her clients would like to see implemented. And that’s just what the movie title refers to: the Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) wishes to introduce the sport of fly fishing salmon in his arid, river-less homeland. As the film’s romantic leads, McGregor and Blunt have a fair amount of chemistry, but they hardly set the screen on fire. In fact, the film neither works as a romantic comedy nor as an emotional and spiritual uplift movie, the kind of cinema with which director Hallström has made his name. As per usual, I’m going to spoil the plot of the movie below.

The first twenty minutes or so of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen establish the respective personal and professional worlds of Harriet and Fred, cutting between them so that the tension mounts and the spectator knows that as soon as these super-attractive individuals meet, sparks are going to fly. Like many other romantic comedies, Salmon Fishing utilizes the Pride and Prejudice template, at first pitting Harriet and Fred against each other before they fall in love. Obsessed with his own research, Fred resents having to take a meeting with the persistent Harriet at her office, clear on the other side of London town. He rejects her client’s proposal as “fundamentally unfeasible” and laughs in her face; the geography and climate of the Arabian country just don’t allow for this species’s survival. So things between them get off to a rocky start. By the time he returns to his cubicle at the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Prime Minister’s office has gotten involved, forcing Fred’s boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill), to issue an ultimatum: either accept termination of employment or work exclusively on this project—with a raise. If only all career decisions were as easy to make. I should mention that as the head of the PM’s press office, Patricia Maxwell (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) latches onto the sheikh’s aspirational story so as to counterbalance all of the other destructive events taking place across the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly when it comes to Britain’s continued fighting in Afghanistan.

The trouble with Harriet and Fred’s relationship is that the filmmakers have no creative ways to keep them apart, which is a plot contrivance they’re very committed to upholding until the last scene. A reserved and humorless Ph.D. from Scotland, Fred is married to a cold and distant career-minded woman named Mary (Rachael Stirling). Their sex is passionless and perfunctory, and when he desperately suggests that they have a baby together, pledging to raise it while she goes off to work everyday, she doesn’t hear him. He is so emasculated and unfulfilled that he doesn’t have the balls to repeat himself when she requests for him to do so. Much of the film story unfolds while Mary takes an extended business trip to Geneva, freeing Fred to hang out with Harriet outside of their office hours, in London, Yemen, and Scotland. Thus, when Mary returns to surprise Fred, she receives one of her own: during an interrogation, Fred tells his wife that he’s in love with his work colleague Harriet. Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with? It’s completely unoriginal to make the romantic hero unhappily married, to a distant woman, no less, in order to render his attraction to a caring and sensitive woman compelling, even refreshing. How many times have we seen this before? It would have been more interesting if the script merely presented Fred’s being socially awkward as an impediment to their getting together, with his interactions with Harriet and the sheikh eventually loosening him up. At one point, Harriet teases him about having Asperger’s syndrome, and his response is so cryptic that it’s unclear whether or not he truly has it.

But, if you can believe it, the reason why Harriet cannot attach herself to Fred is even more ridiculous. She spends most of the film crying over her boyfriend of three weeks, Army Captain Robert (Tom Mison), who goes missing in action in Afghanistan. Three weeks?! Don’t get me wrong: it’s a devastating loss, and I cannot imagine how unbearable that kind of uncertainty is. However, I can’t help but wonder if her constant grieving, which Fred does his best to soothe her through, isn’t at least a smidge overly dramatic (and how is he able to do that anyway if he has Asperger’s?). When she finally receives notice that Robert was in fact killed in an attack, she blubbers about how she didn’t even get to know him. Mourning what might have been is perfectly understandable, but through most of the film, she acts as if she has known Robert her whole life (even going so far as to quit coming in to work for days on end), perhaps clinging to his proposal that she wait for him until he gets back from the war. And when he miraculously survives, Patricia uses Robert to elevate the Yemeni project in the eyes of the British public, inviting him to the site to fish in the wadi. No surprise: Robert turns out to be a bore whose embraces stifle Harriet and make her long for Fred. Hmm, I wonder whom she will pick.

But Salmon Fishing carries more than just a clunky romantic comedy narrative; it also represents an emotional and spiritual uplift movie because it is about the personal growth that derives from leaving one’s comfort zone and dreaming the impossible. Sheikh Muhammad, funnily enough, ties these two strands together, but not without some clumsy narrative tropes. On the one hand, the sheikh, upon his quirky introduction at his Scottish loch-side estate, is established as Harriet and Fred’s matchmaker. Over drinks after dinner, he quizzes his project’s top team members about their personal lives, remarking that what Harriet and Fred have in common is that they are each away from their loved ones. What is the sheikh suggesting, anyway? “Ooh, you can get up to something while you’re here, in one of my dozens of guestrooms”? No, but it is a hint that the sexual tension between them is noticeable and that Sheikh Muhammad would approve of their eventual union. Later, at the end of the film, just when it appears that Harriet is leaving the wadi with Robert, the sheikh climbs atop a mound of rocks to see if the salmon have survived a flood that local dissidents have caused by opening the sheikh’s dam. When he spots one still unbelievably swimming upstream, Harriet and Fred rejoice, and he renews his vow to stand by the sheikh and continue to build the site. Harriet volunteers to assist (meaning: to stay with him). Thus, in this moment, Sheikh Muhammad’s gaze from on-high allows him to keep alive the twin dreams of introducing salmon fishing in the country and commencing in earnest their heretofore tentative romance, which I must add, is signaled not with a passionate kiss but with their holding each other’s hands.

Sheikh Muhammad, Fred, and Harriet go over their plans—for salmon fishing in the desert and, implicitly, for romance. Image courtesy of http://www.collider.com

More problematic, however, is the sheikh’s characterization. He is obviously meant to challenge stereotypes about Middle Eastern men, specifically those with oil-exploitative wealth and thus political power, but in doing so, he perpetuates them. He quickly bonds with Fred over a session of fly fishing, talking candidly and self-consciously about his crazy plans, inserting the odd curse word here and there. But he is also stoic and wise, speaking eloquently about his country, hobby, and dreams of development. That he trusts a young British woman with his £50 million investment, asking her to recruit a fisheries consultant and such, suggests that he not only holds zero grudges against the former occupiers of his country, but that he is also one for gender equality. Eh, not so fast: while hobnobbing with Harriet and Fred during their first stay at his Scottish glen estate, he mentions that he has many wives. Thus, he isn’t quite as progressive or “visionary” as Harriet believes; he still leads a rather traditional lifestyle, and the fact that the filmmakers use polygamy to signify his Otherness means that they are treading on popular Western-conceived notions of Middle Eastern cultures. In other words, are there no other ways to say the sheikh is a mixture of worldviews? There isn’t anything even distinctly Yemeni about him, his culture remaining a mystery to the Anglo-American viewer. (Morocco stands in for Yemen, I should I add, too.)

Worse still, it isn’t until the end of the film, I think during a press conference or photo opportunity, that Sheikh Muhammad explains his uncommon project for developing the wadi and surrounding land areas as beneficial to the local communities. Although it is unclear what his title entails (as in, what is his jurisdiction?), the sheikh obviously feels a sense of responsibility toward his people (whoever they are) and thus wants to use his wealth to enrich their lives. However, for most of the film, given Fred’s reluctance to accept the sheikh’s plans, salmon fishing in Yemen comes across as merely one rich, eccentric man’s expensive and incomprehensible (i.e. Western) hobby. The intricacies of his vision are never really elaborated; has he surmised that fly fishing promotes irrigation, provides clean water access, or even relieves stress for resident farmers? This is also why I couldn’t help but wonder, why wouldn’t he just invest £50 million in a much more practical development plan? Added to all of this is the sheikh’s unpopularity with some gun-toting, perhaps tribal, terrorists. His heated argument with one of the militants, who harasses him on the building site, goes un-subtitled, and when he later summarizes what transpired between them for Harriet and Fred, they don’t follow up with questions. At one point, while fishing in Scotland, Fred even saves the sheikh from an assassination attempt with his perfectly angled and cast fishing line. Right… Did no one ever ask Sheikh Muhammad if his money would be better spent on a more popular project? Then again, no one can argue with money and power.

Sheikh Muhammad and Harriet supervise the construction of a Yemeni river for salmon fishing. He comes prepared with a sheathed dagger at his waist. Image courtesy of http://www.pinkjulepabroad.com

In fact, the premise and beginning of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen seemed to suggest that the film is about a clash of cultures, which is something that director Hallström specializes in. Scanning his filmography, it is easy to spot how he gravitates toward stories that revolve around outsiders, such as Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules (1999) and Juliette Binoche’s Vianne in Chocolat (2000), characters who bring about sea-changes when they, respectively, step onto an apple orchard or into a small ultra-religious village. You might expect something similar to happen between Fred and Sheikh Muhammad, but because the sheikh is so “Western” he doesn’t present any real culturally ideological challenges. Instead, Fred, a skeptical scientist, merely must learn to believe that they can pull it off, despite all evidence to the contrary, because the sheikh’s unflappable faith is contagiously comforting. After all, when a rich man charms you with a highly appreciative salary, glowing compliments, and lavishly furnished wadi-side tents in addition to granting you free-reign at his Scottish estate, how can you resist agreeing with him?

This brings me to my next point: I cannot ignore Salmon Fishing‘s representation of Scotland and Scottish identity, topics that I have begun to ritually analyze. Sheikh Muhammad is obviously obsessed with Scotland, a somewhat perplexing but ultimately amusing characterization. His fascination with the culture presents something of a chicken-and-the-egg paradox: is his Scottish estate—located in the Highlands, no less—his favorite among all his land holdings because he loves fishing for salmon or is it the other way around? In other words, how did his love affairs with Scotland and salmon even start? Interestingly, Yemeni men dressed in traditional clothing guard his glen manor, but he keeps on a Scottish butler, Malcolm (Hamish Gray), to greet guests and manage the property’s day-to-day operations. Later, when the British Prime Minister’s publicist Patricia visits to discuss the impossibility of swiping 10,000 wild British salmon and transferring them to Yemen, the sheikh’s men are decked out in kilts!

Patricia, Malcolm, and Sheikh Muhammad pass a line of Yemeni guards in kilts. Image courtesy of http://www.allmoviephoto.com

My knee-jerk reaction to this scene was a rolling of the eyes. Kilts, of course. What could be more Scottish? But on second thought, this image is representative of how Salmon Fishing sheds light on how Scottish identity seems much more performative than others. That is, putting a kilt on a man renders a whole history, culture, and nation wearable, transferrable. Just notice how the sheikh’s robe clashes with the tartan of his men’s kilts, thereby divorcing the fashion statement from the cultural significance of the patterns, which historically correspond to Scottish families or clans. One of my favorite commentaries on the flexibility of Scottish identity, or how easy it is for non-Scots to adopt traditional Scottish clothing, dancing, or cooking as a way to express themselves or define who they are, comes from The Big Tease (Kevin Allen, 1999). In it, co-screenwriter and now-late night talk-show host Craig Ferguson stars as a Glasgow-based hairstylist who travels to Los Angeles to compete in a hairdressing competition. When he meets with the manager of his hotel to discuss a discrepancy on his bill, the manager (Larry Miller) professes his love for Scotland, saying that, though he’s never been to the Northern European country, he has seen enough pictures of the place to feel that he is, in fact, Scottish. Why do so many non-Scots identify with Scotland, perhaps even wishing to be Scottish? Do they feel an affinity toward a group of people who they perceive as eccentric (i.e. kilts, bagpipes, thick accents, haggis) or as heroic underdogs (Braveheart certainly made fighting against English colonizers fashionable)?

I think that it is all these things, to some degree, and in the case of Salmon Fishing, Sheikh Muhammad’s eccentric character (manifest in his hobby, dress, and home) aligns with his perception of Scottishness as a wearable identity. Unfortunately, Fred, as a Scotsman, never remarks on the sheikh’s overly enthusiastic appreciation for Scotland and Scottish culture. If he had, perhaps a more satisfying cultural exchange between the two men would have occurred. Instead, the filmmakers leave it up to Harriet’s boyfriend Robert to comment on the sheikh’s seemingly conflicted cultural identities. Once the war-torn lovers reunite in Yemen, Robert jokes that Sheikh Muhammad’s next venture will be to erect a golf course in the desert. This rubs Harriet the wrong way, as she is by now a full-on convert to the sheikh’s optimistic vision, and signals the lovers’ fundamental incompatibility.

As with its rom-com narrative thread, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘s inspirational theme flounders. But at least its dissection of Scottishness proved more rewarding, though not wholly satisfying.