We don’t really get many “insane concept” films anymore. I don’t mean high concept, aka traditional films with crazy plots, like Her or The Shape of Water. I mean truly dumb ideas that either work or they don’t – films like Bugsy Malone, a musical gangster film starring kids where guns are replaced with cream pies. Yesterday, the newest romantic comedy from Four Weddings and a Funeral writer Richard Curtis and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle, is just such a swing, asking the question no one was asking, “What if you were the only one who remembered The Beatles?” Unfortunately, the film also confirms why such films rarely get made, for with the exception of one truly remarkable performance, Yesterday is one of the more disappointing films to grace the silver screen in quite some time.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is at the end of his rope. Having struggled to make ends meet as a singer-songwriter for several years, he’s starting to realize that it just won’t happen for him. Not even the continued support from his fierce and loyal best friend/manager Ellie (Lily James) can convince him that it will happen. However, just as all hope seems lost, something truly strange happens: there’s an international blackout, Jack gets hit by a bus, and when he comes to, he realizes a miracle has happened. Nobody he knows can remember The Beatles. Everything, from A Hard Day’s Night to Abbey Road to “Hey Jude,” is gone from the lexicon completely. Poised with the realization that this could turn his career around, Jack sets out to write down every song he can remember, in the hopes of recreating the music of the greatest band of all time. And for a time, it works! He gets record deals, a chance to tour with Ed Sheeran, a passive-aggressive corporate manager in Debra (Kate McKinnon) and the stardom he’s always wanted. But when he realizes that this newfound stardom comes at the price of his relationship with Ellie, Jack has to decide: is the fame worth it, or is love truly all you need?
I won’t lie and claim the initial premise isn’t entirely interesting. The concept of recreating something you loved as a child for a world that doesn’t remember was explored in Brigsby Bear previously, Kyle Mooney’s impeccable 2017 film about fandom and art and sanity. This film, for a portion of its opening, plays around in the same sandbox, as if Mooney’s innocent James immediately sold out – it’s actually hilarious how quickly Patel’s Jack decides to steal the music with absolutely no guilt. And the film smartly introduces the concept slowly – Jack spends a lot of the opening quoting Beatles songs, which then go unnoticed once the accident happens. However, you realize how much trouble you’re in when the film explains how exactly everyone forgot The Beatles. The answer, inexplicably, is Y2K. That’s right: remember that weird fear everyone had in 1999 about how the computers weren’t equipped to handle the new millennium and assumed the world would come to an end? Yesterday posits that Y2K happened in 2019, and affected not just the world’ computers, but the collective unconscious surrounding the greatest band of all time. The more I try to understand this decision, the more insanely dumb it becomes. After doubling down on this painful set-up, the film does what it can to keep the concept entertaining, to weirdly mixed results. There’s an interesting running joke about other bands and objects being wiped out by Y2K as well, from cigarettes to Coca-Cola™, the latter building up to a funny bit about the #1 Google search for Coke being “Pablo Escobar,” and Jack receiving dirty looks when ordering in restaurants. And there’s a few interesting moments involving the complications surrounding the music that could have worked in a better film. A large portion of the film is dedicated to Jack struggling to remember the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby,” his white whale (and admittedly a plot that works well for me, someone who lists “Rigby” as one of his favorite Beatles songs). And there’s the funny throwaway joke about Jack trying to sneak an original song onto the album, only for everyone to hate it.
However, that’s precisely what’s wrong with this premise: it entirely focuses on the wrong things. The joke about his loathed original song could have sparked an interesting conversation about if Jack was a good musician or just a complete hack, but the film treats this subject as nothing more than a joke. The same can be seen when another individual who remembers The Beatles comments that he’s been mixing up the order in “A Day In The Life” and other songs – something that would have been interesting to actually see, but is instead treated as a joke. Meanwhile, other joke sequences meant to explore the premise fall flat – for much of the opening to the premise, Jack remembers and writes songs based on casual conversations with friends – he gets excited when he learns that a child named Maxwell has been making the teacher “get annoyed,” or when someone says he can get by “with a little help from your friends!” And occasionally, the jokes work, but exclusively for a British audience: when Jack discovers Oasis has been eliminated too, it’s supposed to play as an “Oh no!” moment, while Americans have turned “Wonderwall” into a meme of douchebaggery and triteness. Personally, I could have done with a little less “Jack gets chased through the streets of Liverpool by fangirls” and more “That creepy guy following Jack is named Mark,” but that’s just my twisted sense of humor.
Now, if you think the initial concept is complicated and messy, wait until you see how poorly handled the music industry “satire” is. It’s almost as if Curtis saw A Star Is Born and La La Land, declared, “I can do that!” and immediately removed any originality or life out of the material he’s borrowing/lifting. Almost every joke about musicians, agents, and producers has been trodden to death at this point, from beginning to end. There’s the “musicians have obscure tastes,” as seen when Jack first becomes adamant about The Beatles, and a friend states, “Musicians get so mad when you don’t know every obscure indie pop band, like Neutral Milk Hotel.” There’s the “agents are evil” plotline – McKinnon’s Debra (mostly a bright light), introduces Jack to a colleague by openly stating, “I know nothing about his life, he is a product to me.” And there’s nearly any moment in a recording studio, where “idiot” producers try to butcher songs the audience is supposed to realize are great to make them more commercial. This is material that has become so obvious and stale by this point, the best case scenario this film can hope for are polite chuckles. Occasionally, the film toys with the material to find something smarter to say about the music industry – moments like “Let It Be” failing when he first plays it because it’s too different to what the world is used to, or a song-off against Ed Sheeran where Sheeran’s sh*tty love song about penguins competing against “The Long and Winding Road,” or the fact that Jack becomes famous because “he’s unique – no sixteen writers on one song, no samples, no guest spots. It’s just [him].” But alas; the film chooses to forego these interesting moments to have jokes about renaming “Hey Jude” as “Hey Dude,” or a scene where Lamorne Morris plays the head of marketing for the production company. Christ, what a scene that was. Morris shows up to applause from a roomful of corporate zombies, explains why the album titles won’t work in obnoxious millennial-skewering jargon (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band…too many words. The White Album…there’s diversity issues there. Abbey Road…it’s just weird, why would you fixate on a random road?”) and pitches a bad title to oohs and ahhs and a standing ovation from his staff. It all plays like a bad SNL skit and I hated it so much. And those moments that are interesting are mostly ignored – mentioned in passing and then forgotten, like that “Let It Be” initial failure, or the fact that Jack and Ellie have to recreate massive orchestral pieces on a shoestring budget (a one-minute scene involving triangles and rubber kitchen gloves that I could watch on repeat). It’s almost as if Curtis and Boyle have no understanding of which parts of their lazy satire are actually interesting, and actively go out of their way to choose the wrong moments.
However, the most egregious blunder of Yesterday is the entirety of its romantic comedy angle. Now, I’m not against romantic comedies – Her is my favorite film, When Harry Met Sally… is a personal favorite, and Sleepless In Seattle is my go-to depression cure. I’m not even against Richard Curtis rom-coms – I adore Four Weddings, really like Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, and appreciate About Time (I am familiar with Love Actually’s work). So I’m not saying this film is bad because it is a romantic comedy. I’m saying it is a bad romantic comedy. This detail will strike you from the very beginning, when the dialogue comes across as stilted, and the friend characters are written to be insufferable. A character declares, for his very first line, “I see you’re still making sweet love to Ellie,” a statement rejected, in a very over-the-top manner, by the two characters (“Never! Not even once!” “She’s my manager!”) Subtle, guys. Much of the film plays a little northwards of a Hallmark movie in the cheesiness department, with characters speaking in dorky clichés and characters immediately explaining every joke they make, just in case the audience doesn’t get it. The shortest shaft is given to Lily James’ Ellie, who gives it her all in an underwritten and thankless role. James is cast as the best friend who is very clearly in love with an unworthy male love interest (a very Curtis move), to the point that in pretty much her very first scene, she leans in for a kiss and is immediately rejected. Lily James is the latest in a long line of romantic comedy leads who ooze charisma to such a degree, it is impossible to imagine her as a best friend – not unlike Julia Roberts. There is no universe in which anyone, man or woman, would describe Ms. James as, “We were like brother and sister! It’s very bad for brothers and sisters to…you know…” It is an egregious oversight.
Of course, it’s probably for the best that these two kiss rarely in the film – their love scenes lack anything resembling chemistry. And how can it? The dialogue Richard Curtis writes for them is almost unlistenable. What ever happened to the man who wrote the famous Bridget Jones finale? Or the oft-maligned “Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed?” Or “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her?” None of that is here, as these two come up with the most inexplicably dumb reasons not to be together, just to pad the film’s runtime. It all builds up to a finale that is so ridiculously over the top and anxiety inducing, no woman would ever be wooed for it. It is creepy and manipulative in ways that go even beyond the usual weirdness of the genre – and what’s worse, Yesterday’s Other Man, Gavin (Alexander Arnold) did nothing to deserve the embarrassment and public shaming the ending drops on him. Why do they hate when he offers nothing but love? Oh, and while the film ends with a modestly sweet Notting Hill rip-off complete with a wedding and a company rendition of “Ob-La-Di,” before we get there, we witness one of the most unfunny, baffling jokes in modern rom-com history (maybe film history, period). It is a sequence I am very desperate to spoil, and it is requiring all my will power not to do so, out of respect for the filmmakers. But you will laugh, and not for the right reasons (hint: it involves a wacky falling-into-bed sequence).
Now, none of this is altogether strange. Writers and directors make cinematic missteps all the time. What experts like Curtis and Boyle don’t usually do is execute bad stories this terribly. This is, all around, a lazily produced film. Curtis’ screenplay has a few great lines (“I cannot apologize enough. Bloody Ed Sheeran” stands out in my mind), but mostly exists in a realm where there are no stakes or drama – even when it is revealed that other characters also remember The Beatles, they gloss over the blatant theft with sh*tty idioms like “A world without The Beatles is not worth living in.” Meanwhile, Boyle’s direction is so painfully lazy and phoned in, I retroactively want his Oscar back. I have no idea why he directed this film (it’s nothing like his other projects), and I certainly don’t know why he chose to open and film it almost exactly like a terrible student film (don’t believe me? My 11th grade student project has the exact same opening). The editing by Jon Harris is lazy and haphazard, to the point that several conversations start during the day, then are continued at night in new locations. The lighting is atrocious, and the costume department makes inexplicable choices, such as placing Ellie in children’s pajamas in several scenes. I will say the music is great, mostly because it is Beatles classics (and an original Ed Sheeran song that surprisingly isn’t terrible), but there are some…interesting choices made here, including an angry grunge version of “Help!” However, the film’s death knell, far and away, is pacing. This is a film that felt like it should have been wrapping up at the 30 minute mark, and felt overlong at an hour and a half. How is it that through all this, through the padded storyline and uninteresting tangents, the film still manages to feel 90 minutes too long? There is no reason for a film to leave you feeling that drained, and it is an unrecoverable blemish on the film’s already-dismal record.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, you’re really digging into this film. Why are you even hesitating to call it outright terrible?” And that’s simple: Lily James. James gives what can only be described as her fourth or fifth breakout performance here, to the point that they should really create an Honorary Oscar for her as a reward for making mediocre and bad films look great (or in the case of Baby Driver, a great film perfect). Every time James is onscreen, the film feels different, and she acts circles around her compatriots. While most of her fellow cast mates cannot help but betray their knowledge of the Beatles songbook, James remains the only one to truly sell the concept; she is capable of conveying wonder and joy at hearing iconic songs as if for the first time. She’ll make you laugh, she’ll make you cry, and you’ll wonder if a drunk, heartbroken scene halfway through the film is enough to make an Oscar reel. It’s not, but you’ll consider it. Honestly, it is her movie, through and through. As for Patel, he’s got a great voice, and certainly has some talent, but you’ll never feel like he’s more than “fine” in the role – although, in his defense, he often has to act against a hungry James chewing scenery. Joel Fry’s stoner best friend Rocky is a bit irritating, but he does grow on you by the end. I’m a little disappointed that Ed Sheeran was too full of himself to go full douchenozzle, but he at least does have a killer joke involving “Shape Of You” as his ringtone (which I believe). And Kate McKinnon’s character, while annoying, does have a few solid one-liners – and there’s no greater actress to give them life than McKinnon. She gives such zest to passive-aggressive one-liners like “You are skinny but somehow round,” and a sequence of her doing yoga while prioritizing is one of the few moments I smiled in the entire film. Honestly, I’m not actually sure she was a part of this film – she may have just wandered onto set and they kept the cameras rolling. As I mentioned above, I thought Alexander Arnold was an affable Other Guy, and while it will certainly be controversial, I did enjoy the one-scene performance of an uncredited actor whom I cannot name as of press time. However, there are two actors I want to single out, and not for good reasons. Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal play Jack’s parents Jed and Sheila, and they give two of the worst performances I’ve seen all year. Through an unholy combination of bad writing and bad acting, these two come off as Disney Channel parent dumb, and every moment they appear onscreen I wanted to gouge my own eyes out. Every scene with these two should have been cut from the film, and I do not hesitate in saying so.
Yesterday is the type of film that frustrates you to no end. There’s a lot of good in it, between the concept and a few of the jokes and Lily James, that it is infuriating how much there is to dislike. It’s a film that feels lazy, and when you’re working with this weird of a concept, you can’t half-ass it – that’s how you get Zardoz. The worst part is that in spite of everything, I almost want to recommend it – I loved Lily James’ performance that much, and it’s bad enough that it could be fun to talk about. However, I can’t even lean hard enough into that element – James’ performance isn’t enough to save this film, and the badness isn’t enough to warrant a so-bad-it’s-good viewing. It’s just…boring. And at the end of the day, that’s the worst crime a film can commit.