I'm trying to think of another film hinging on a phenomenon of towering cultural significance that fritters its running time on as many dumb gimmicks and dopey tropes as this one. I'm drawing a blank. Yesterday is a genre of one. No worries about a franchise. One is one more than discerning moviegoers are likely to want.
Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) but, more significantly, written by Richard Curtis (Notting Hill), this is an awkward crossbreed of fantasy or science fiction or just plain silliness with romantic comedy. When I say "romantic," I don't mean to suggest anything beyond see-it-coming-miles-away plotting. When I say "comedy," I don't mean to imply there are laughs. Reflexive half-smiles and a chuckle or two, tops.
Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, an aspiring performer who realizes the time has come to abandon all show-biz hope. He's wearied of playing to the same handful of friends and his manager/best bud, Ellie (Lily James). Precisely when he decides to get serious, however, the universe plays a preposterous joke.
A power outage momentarily darkens the world. Jack is thrown from his bike and bangs his head and, presto, a star is born. Jack soon recognizes he's the only one who remembers the Fab Four. When he strums a Beatles tune, people gaze in awe. Faster than you can say "You Can't Do That," he's reaping the rewards of global Malikmania.
The filmmakers cheat in selling this premise. They make sure the songs we see Jack perform pre-magical mystery glitch are lame and lamely performed, the better to make his Beatles covers sound extraordinary. One of the movie's numerous failures is that they actually just sound a little less lame.
Critics have credited Yesterday with a cheeky critique of the music industry, but that's nonsense. Kate McKinnon appears in the role of a pushy record exec with plans to remake Jack into a human ATM, but the caricature is nothing we haven't seen her do on "Saturday Night Life" dozens of times. The script's most profound insight into the industry is that its business model involves making a profit by selling catchy songs. Not exactly the stuff of Michael Moore.
Ed Sheeran appears as himself in a role written for Coldplay's Chris Martin. Which explains why, when Jack first plays a Beatles tune, a friend calls it stunning though "no Coldplay 'Fix You.'" Otherwise, not much satire there.
Which leaves the picture's dueling story lines: a painfully belabored will-they-or-won't-they involving Jack and Ellie (Notting Hill this is not) and the fraught conceit that everybody on Earth but Jack has forgotten the Beatles. While the premise is 100 percent ridiculous and arbitrary, the film's creators could have done any number of intriguing things with it. Unfortunately, they did none of them.
Instead, they introduce threads, then leave them dangling and eventually stoop appallingly low in pursuit of goosebumps. Movie-critic law prohibits saying more, but really, is nothing too hallowed to monetize? Apparently not.
It's simpleminded to suggest that, in a Beatles-amnesiac world, anyone who sang their songs would achieve their level of glory. They were four extraordinary beings who did what they did in the context of a specific time and place with a little help from their extraordinary producer, George Martin. As key to that phenomenon as the songs are their performances and arrangements. Subtract any element from the equation, and the result is cultural Jenga — a rubble of unreached possibility. Yesterday had potential, but it simply didn't come together.