If not for an endearing cast and some occasional splashes of Richard Curtis’ signature British charm, “Yesterday” would be a complete waste of its clever premise — not to mention the money it must have cost to license 17 of the Beatles’ most famous songs. As it stands, this sweet but vacuous exercise in suspending disbelief is an overstuffed and underwritten misfire; a studio-engineered crowd-pleaser so convinced “All You Need Is Love” that it loses sight of some other essentials along the way: Believable characters, elegant pacing, a script that develops an actual heart instead of just nodding its head to a steady drumbeat of Hallmark emotions. For a movie that manages to inspire a funny and self-effacing performance from Ed Sheeran, “Yesterday” gets tripped up on the basics.
The premise, dreamed up by one-time “The Simpsons” writer Jack Barth, is ingenious for how specifically it taps into a fantasy that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever longed to create something as miraculous as their favorite music. It begins with Jack Malik (golden-voiced “Eastenders” star Himesh Patel, talented as no tomorrow but handicapped by a one-note role in his big-screen debut), a struggling musician who’s this close to giving up on his dreams of fame and fortune. After 10 years of busking on the streets and playing the same few bars in Sussex, he’s one lousy gig away from putting his guitar away and becoming a teacher. The only person more disappointed in Jack than he is in himself is his best friend and biggest fan, Ellie (Lily James, winsome as ever), the beautiful girl next door whose single-minded crush on him has grown so large that it flattens them both into two-dimensional characters.
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So far, so familiar. But then, a miracle: The entire planet loses power for 12 seconds and Jack gets hit by a bus. Well, that’s not the miracle — the miracle is what comes next: A few hours after leaving the hospital, Jack realizes that he’s the only person on Earth who remembers the Beatles. He makes a reference to “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and Ellie blinks at him blankly. He sings “Yesterday” to his friends with the new guitar she bought him for encouragement, and they’re all shellshocked. It doesn’t take Jack long to realize that he’s in the most good-natured episode of “The Twilight Zone” that Rod Serling never wrote; he can have everything he’s ever wanted; he just has to take it from four blokes who nobody else has ever heard of — not in this timeline, anyway.
If you’re hoping that “Yesterday” might grapple with — or exhibit so much as the slightest curiosity about — the idea of what might happen if someone (let alone someone of Indian heritage) introduced the Beatles’ extraordinary back catalogue into the modern cultural landscape, then you might need to readjust your expectations. Curtis, who’s basically the Shakespeare of schmaltz, couldn’t possibly care less about how the absence of “The White Album” might have affected the last half century, or what it might feel like for contemporary music fans to be confronted with “Come Together” in the age of Coldplay.
Curtis’ screenplay, while sometimes highly amusing in self-contained moments (e.g. Jack trying to play “Let it Be” for his distracted parents), treats the conceit as though it were merely a complication for the generic rom-com underneath. Despite having the elements for an unusual star-is-born saga that flirts with potentially fascinating aspects of authorship and maybe the most epic case of imposter syndrome ever diagnosed, “Yesterday” is nothing more than a classic story about some dumb boy chasing his chintzy dream instead of recognizing the reality that’s been staring him in the face the whole time.
Alas, Danny Boyle is the last director who might have tempered Curtis’ worst instincts and anchored “Yesterday” to some kind of appreciable human depths. He and Curtis — two maximalists whose best work (“Notting Hill” and “Sunshine,” respectively) explores what happens when relatable characters are launched into out-of-this-world circumstances — are a match made in hell. Both can be brilliant when they tap into the right material, and both can feel hopelessly desperate when they’re trapped in a corner. Together, they’ve created a film that’s always too much and never enough.
Rather than investing viewers in Jack’s rise to fame, and grappling with the gut check that it requires of him, Curtis summons a deus ex Sheeran to swoop in and launch the protagonist into the stratosphere. Sheeran is great in an unexpectedly significant role, hostile but helpful as the self-described Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, but he’s no substitute for legible character growth. Rather than slowing down to capture Jack’s experience with fame, or grounding the story to convey the impact of thinking someone wrote “In My Life” for you, Boyle steams ahead into absurdity. At one point, he condenses an entire act into a meaningless light show that recalls the worst moments of “Steve Jobs” in how it reduces profound human emotions into the stuff of raw stimuli. While that choice helps contribute to the kind of dream logic that drives the film’s plot, it also emphasizes why that approach is such a misstep for a story that’s never as real as it needs to be.
There are dozens of cute moments, and Curtis introduces some delightful wrinkles into the film’s concept (and, at a crucial moment in the third act, a truly dreadful one), but these micro joys don’t compensate for the macro issues. In a film that requires its audience to engage in some Herculean suspension of disbelief with each new scene (we’re supposed to expect that, in the year 2019, an unknown artist’s breakthrough single could open with the lyrics “She was just 17 / yeah you know what I mean?”), it’s deadly that the simple romance at the story’s core is the hardest part of it all to swallow.
Jack is a handsome lad with a beautiful singing voice, but “Yesterday” never affords Ellie any deeper reasons to love him. Jack takes her for granted at every turn (as she eventually points out), he leaves her in the lurch whenever he can, and he spends almost the entire movie in one kind of anguish or another. To a certain extent, it’s obviously the point that Jack can’t enjoy his success without being able to share it with Ellie — not that the film offers a credible reason as to why he can’t share it with Ellie — but the character is so miserable for so long that he also never endears himself to us.
It’s a shame, because Patel deserves all of the recognition that Jack doesn’t. Not only does he sound exactly like a young Paul McCartney when he sings, but he radiates charisma in a way that makes him easier to believe as a superstar than it is as a school teacher. James, a brilliant singer who’s become the secret weapon of every movie she’s in, never even gets a crack at a duet. The actress is buoyant and appealing enough to have chemistry with a hole in the ground (or the male lead of a “Mamma Mia!” movie), and there’s no doubt that she and Patel could have played an electric couple in a film that wasn’t so determined to sell them short, but she’s wasted here. Joel Fry (as Jack’s idiot roadie) and Kate McKinnon (as his money-grubbing manager) have a lot less responsibility in their supporting roles, and they both deliver enjoyably broad comic performances that resuscitate the movie time and again.
But even when things get truly surreal and Jack is performing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” to thousands of screaming fans at Wembley Stadium, “Yesterday” still feels like it’s all been done before. There’s an unshakable cognitive dissonance to a movie that attaches so many clichés to such a high-concept premise, and by the time the sun goes down on this peculiarly small-seeming fable, not even Curtis’ usual tear-jerking tenderness is there to cushion the blow; your guitar will be the only thing that gently weeps. This disappointing misfire doesn’t even leave viewers with a renewed love for the Fab Four; by suggesting that the world would be virtually the same if the Beatles had never come together, “Yesterday” almost makes you wish that they hadn’t.
Universal Pictures will release “Yesterday” in theaters on June 28.