It is generally a bad time for comedy at the movies. Vanity Fair devoted much of its latest issue to the triumph of television over film in both drama and comedy, and with the quality blip provided by the Oscars now well and truly over, it is hard to disagree. There is little big-screen evidence of the smartness of such US TV shows as The Big Bang Theory or 30 Rock, which give the lie to the notion that a mass audience automatically requires a lowering of the common denominator. We movie fans are instead palmed off with the kind of gross-out humour which involves copious amounts of body fluids — presumably because this very modern form of slapstick will be understood equally by Mexican and Malaysian teenage boys, Hollywood now being reliant on the global market for its income.
When film-makers try to make us laugh with something other than toilet gags, the comedy is, like Damsels in Distress, tepid at the very most. The mainstream has become frightened of wit. Another example is the just-released Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an adaptation of the novel by Paul Torday. Starring Ewan McGregor as a fogeyish government scientist, who is reluctantly enticed into helping an Anglophile, fly-fishing sheikh introduce salmon into the wadis of the Yemen, it's an oddly old-fashioned film. Although set in the present day, its twinkly charm has to be shoe-horned in by having people dress and indeed converse in a slightly out-of-date way: McGregor and his (eventual) love interest Emily Blunt remain on formal Mr and Miss terms for much of the story, a feature which is even less plausible than the story's central conceit.
For such romance to work there still has to be a barrier of some kind to overcome, and as these barely exist nowadays, I suppose artificial ones like these have to be invented. And for comedy to work, you need directors and actors who understand timing and have sure-footed instincts. The director here, Lasse Hallström, appears to have neither, so we spend much of the time during this perfectly inoffensive movie in a state of readiness for laughs or sighs that never quite come (things aren't helped by a truly dreadful, unfunny performance by Kristin Scott Thomas, who should in future stick to damaged hauteur). And within an hour, it has all disappeared from our minds.
I now cannot remember the last time I heard a cinema audience laugh, together, uproariously, at the same joke, not in the way they laughed at, say, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, or even at Four Weddings. Behind the scenes someone, somewhere, has lost their touch, or indeed their nerve.