What if only one person on Earth knew about the Beatles? Yesterday promises a return to the era of fizzy speculative comedies: What if Ben Stiller were a runway model? What if Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn crashed weddings to hook up with girls? What if Adam Sandler were mentally about nine years old? (Okay, they may have tried that one too often.)
I expected more, much more, from Yesterday, considering the talents of its writer, Richard Curtis (Love, Actually), and director, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire). The answer to the question “What are they going to do with this setup?” turns out to be “almost nothing.”
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a failing British singer-songwriter who, during an unexplained 12-second worldwide blackout, gets hit by a bus. Recovering with the aid of his best friend Ellie (Lily James), he makes a joke about whether she’ll still need him when he’s 64. Why 64?, she asks. Google searches reveal that the Beatles don’t exist. Tentatively, Jack starts singing “Yesterday” and some other Beatles songs to small groups of friends, and when he does one on a local TV show, it catches the eye of Ed Sheeran, who invites Jack to be the opening act for his tour. An L.A. talent agent (played as more grating than funny by Kate McKinnon) introduces him to what Orson Welles once called the standard rich and famous contract. The unresolved questions are: Will Jack confess that he isn’t the author of the Beatles’ songs? And will he and Ellie realize they should be together?
To the second question the only conceivable answer is “Duh.” She’s Lily James. She is to charm approximately what West Virginia is to coal. We’re supposed to believe this chump is going to let her get away? Or to flip it around, once he turns out to be not only the sweetest guy she knows but also the single most talented songwriter in the history of planet Earth, do we really believe she’d rather date a small-town nobody? A romantic comedy has to put considerable ingenuity into the question of what is keeping its lovebirds apart. Curtis and Boyle put none whatsoever into it. How did the author of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and About Time bungle this? It’s like watching Gordon Ramsay try and fail to figure out how to turn on the stove.
Only a bit more effort seems to have gone into developing the main story. The script could veer into philosophical waters à la Groundhog Day — why is this random person God’s chosen conduit for such beautiful music? — or it could turn into a farce. (Sheeran suggests one of Jack’s compositions would be better if he changed the lyric to “Hey Dude.”) There is also potential for dark satire. In the original version of the story, by Jack Barth, the Beatles’ songs don’t attract any attention in Jack Malik’s hands because he doesn’t offer the right combination of circumstances that made the Beatles work. So he fails again, despite being the world’s only link to the Beatles. The finished film takes a momentary detour in this direction (when Jack plays “Let It Be” for his parents in their parlor, they barely pay attention because who expects one of the world’s greatest songs to appear out of nowhere?). But the scene, like many others in the movie, is a bit lumpy and not particularly funny. The intriguing questions raised by the central conceit — for instance, if Lennon and McCartney never existed, should you really feel guilty about ripping them off? — get dropped without pursuing them very far, and the climactic scene doesn’t even make sense.
As if all of this weren’t frustrating enough, Joel Fry is nothing but irritating as the wacky best friend and Sheeran proves inept playing himself, unable to muster any comic zing as he stumbles upon genius or, later, to register much emotion about the emergence of a superior talent. Wouldn’t Sheeran do everything he could to undermine his new competitor? That could be funny. Instead he steps aside and accepts his fate as Salieri to Jack’s Mozart. Salieri wasn’t nice, though: Sheeran is, and nice means boring. You’d think Jack would have an arc here — that superstardom would lead him to bad behavior, as it has for so many others — but instead he remains blandly cute throughout. Patel, previously a star of the EastEnders soap, is a poor choice to play this role. He has no depth, no star power, no dark side. I’m astonished that Boyle cast him. His co-star James, despite being stuck with an equally nice character who is also without any nuance whatsoever, doesn’t just overshadow him, she obliterates him.
Throughout the movie, and especially in an unexpected late scene, Curtis keeps hinting that he had more to offer than a gimmick, that he was developing an alternative reality from which not just the Beatles but other cultural totems had disappeared. (The only funny wrinkle here is that Oasis would also be erased from history if there had been no Beatles.) A movie with lots of unexpected ramifications could have sprung from the same base. As it is, Yesterday feels like a first draft that made it to the screen only because of the track record of the men who filmed it. Despite efforts ranging from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) to Across the Universe (2007), a truly great Beatles film is still yet to be made.