There's an off-handed joke about Asperger's syndrome in "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" -- director Lasse Hallstrom's irony-free adaptation of Paul Torday's ironic novel -- and it makes you wonder if the film has a cognitive disorder of its own. After all, characters laugh at things that aren't funny. They fail to understand the perfectly obvious. They take umbrage with each other for no reason other than to advance the story's ridiculous premise -- one that Torday treated with tongue in cheek, but which Hallstrom ("Chocolat") takes perfectly seriously.
Hallstrom's adaptation has as much in common with its source material as it does a can of tuna fish. The story: Harriet (Blunt) is a consultant working for British government publicist Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas, channeling "Absolutely Fabulous"), who's looking to spin some upbeat news out of the Middle East. So she assigns Harriet to help a wealthy Yemeni sheik (Amr Waked) stock the river he's created (by building a Hoover-sized dam) with salmon, so his impoverished people can enjoy the fly fishing they're always dreamed of. Harriet, whose boyfriend is off fighting in Afghanistan, is no dope, so she seeks out Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor), one of the nation's leading ichthyologists, who thinks the whole scheme is insane. Which, of course it is, even though Jones comes to embrace it, especially after his wife (Rachael Stirling) leaves him and he apparently loses his mind.
PLOT A publicist and a fisheries expert help a Yemeni sheik angling to bring fly-fishing to his Mideast country. RATING PG-13 (some violence, sexual content and brief strong language)
PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas, Malverne Cinema 4, Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington
BOTTOM LINE Get the hook: Clumsily unconvincing story has appealing stars, no clue.