Review: ‘Yesterday,’ All My Troubles Seemed So Far Away Before I Saw This Movie

Yeesh! Under an elaborate disguise, the heart of an old-fashioned romantic comedy beats anews.

Having long left behind his roots as a comedy writer for television, Richard Curtis is now known primarily as the writer of sweetly broad big-screen romances Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually. His past experience is very evident in Yesterday, which is chock-full of broad one-liners, adorable nincompoops, and unbelievably patient and tolerant women who are far too good for the oblivious clods who are inevitably gifted with their love.

Director Danny Boyle may be best known for Trainspotting, 28 Days Later… and 127 Hours, but his films frequently display a mordant sense of humor. Perhaps my personal favorite of his films is Millions (2004), a warm and little-seen comedy that centered around a boy who finds a bagful of money.

Something about the tone of the advance trailers for Yesterday suggested to me that it might be cut from the same cloth. It’s a fantasy that wonders what might happen if a struggling singer-songwriter suddenly becomes the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles.

The premise is fabulous and invites immediate speculation as to which avenue screenwriter Richard Curtis, working from the story credited to himself and Jack Barth, will follow. Of all the many avenues that are immediately opened up as possibilities, the film decides to stick to a very familiar path as a romantic comedy, without even a fresh approach to that exhausted genre.

Without much outward appeal or inward elan, Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, the aforementioned singer-songwriter from Suffolk, England, who finally decides after ten years as a solo act without any success that he will hang up his guitar and do something else. His long-suffering manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James) is heartbroken by his decision. Secretly nursing a mad crush on Jack for half her life, Ellie also wonders about the future. She is a cheerful, gainfully-employed schoolteacher who is content with her life in the seaside community and altogether too good for Jack, so the time for waiting on him to make a move is drawing to a close.

Then, something strange happens worldwide, and 12 seconds later, no one but Jack remembers The Beatles; it’s as though they never existed! Soon, Jack figures out that he might finally find success if he passes off songs written by the Fab Four as his own, and before you know it, he’s struck instant success, is touring with Ed Sheeran, and Ed’s cynical, insulting manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) is masterminding Jack’s incredible new career.

Though the film has leaned heavily on the idea that it’s all about what might happen if everyone suddenly forgot The Beatles ever existed, it’s very lazy about developing that idea into anything but one joke, repeated with slight variations, ad infinitum. In effect, the film celebrates Jack’s plagiarism as a good thing, or at least a means to a good thing.

Yet this is exactly why plagiarism plagues the world. Without credit, thieves steal the stories, songs, and other creative works from other people who are, in nearly every case, either dead or little known. Or they are entirely lacking any power to pursue the thieves on the scale that is demanded.

Despite an obligatory mea culpa in its conclusion that manifests no real downsides for its leading characters, Yesterday leaves a sour taste in the mouth. And to be even more accurate, the performances themselves are pale copies of songs that are immortal, so for those who love The Beatles, the film resembles a drunken two-hour karaoke session without any alcohol.

Even if you hate The Beatles, though, there are the film’s other lazy strokes, in which multiple vestiges of the 12-second power outage are tossed away as jokes, and the possible real-world ramifications are dismissed as immaterial.

I get it. Yesterday is meant to be a harmless romantic fantasy. Help yourself.

The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, June 28, 2019.