It’s hard to understand exactly why Richard Curtis, Britain’s prime purveyor of romantic comedies for the past three decades, decided to pivot to speculative science fiction. His talents have long resided in winsome, low-concept narratives of love, sex, and marriage, the quainter the better. He made a name for himself writing movies about going to a bunch of weddings (and a funeral), falling in love with a famous person, and agonizing (on an epic scale) over when and whether to kiss. Curtis’s latest script, Yesterday, has the mumbly English flirting he’s best known for; it’s also about a world in which the Beatles never existed.
The film, directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), is Curtis’s second strange attempt to fuse fantasy with his pleasant brand of gentle romance, after the time-traveling dramedy About Time (which Curtis wrote and directed). That was more of a straightforward tearjerker; Yesterday is never quite sure what it’s supposed to be. After he crashes his bike during a global blackout, the aspiring singer-songwriter Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) finds he’s the only person who recalls the existence of the Beatles (as well as cigarettes, Coca-Cola, and various other bits of random 20th-century iconography that have seemingly vanished from public memory). What follows is some goofy comedy, a broad satire of the music business, and a forced love story that never quite finds a reason for being.
Yesterday’s bizarre concept has a lot of potential for spine-tingling, nostalgic cinematic magic. When Jack strums “Yesterday” on a guitar in front of his pals, they’re thunderstruck; his chipper manager, Ellie (Lily James), who has supported Jack’s career for years as he’s fruitlessly performed his own compositions in local pubs, takes it as a sign that he’s finally ready for the big leagues. Every time Jack plays a Beatles song, Boyle is asking the audience to imagine they’re hearing it for the first time, and some of the film’s reinterpretations evoke the goosebumps he’s looking for. Boyle has long excelled at injecting music-video surrealism into his feature films, from the kinetic Trainspotting to the symphonic Steve Jobs. Wherever he forgets the arcane setup of Curtis’s script and lets the extremely charming Patel belt out the classics, Yesterday succeeds.
But Jack’s efforts to figure out why and how the Beatles disappeared, including a red-herring plot in which he worries that his song thievery might be rumbled, are far less involving. Even worse is Jack’s relationship with Ellie, which comes straight from Curtis’s grab bag of tired, will-they-or-won’t-they tropes. Ellie and Jack are introduced as longtime friends who have never taken the next step together, for reasons unknown and basically never explained. Once Jack starts performing “his” songs and gaining fame, Ellie largely falls out of his life; she’s committed to her day job as a teacher and unwilling to set it aside to continue managing his career. Eventually, though, the two reunite and start fighting over the fact that they never started dating—a sitcom-level plot twist that struggles to compete with the zanier Beatles material that dominates Yesterday. Everyone in the audience can surely agree that Jack and Ellie should get together, but no obstacle is more narratively inert than an argument over why they haven’t. Curtis, it seems, can’t resist leaning on his old formulas even when he tries to branch out, and that tendency ends up doing Yesterday a disservice.
Much funnier and frothier is the film’s other subplot: the idea that someone singing Beatles songs as original material in the 21st century would immediately be swallowed up by a soulless business striving to wring every last bit of originality out of pop music. A droll Kate McKinnon plays the cold-blooded manager who starts to mold Jack in the image of a dull singer-songwriter, while Ed Sheeran appears as himself—a famed pop star who discovers Jack and is quickly outstripped by him.
Yet any time the film hints at a more barbed wit, Curtis’s script smooths things out. The concept of Sheeran as a Salieri-esque figure consumed by Jack’s apparent genius is a devilishly funny one, but even when playing an exaggerated version of himself, the musician is too flat and friendly to sell the role. And while McKinnon’s army of record executives is played as trendy fools trying to erect a cult of personality around Jack, its machinations are forgotten as Yesterday pivots back to its damp romantic subplot. This is a film that could have been triumphantly weird or soaringly corny; it tries to split the difference and ends up being merely forgettable.