“Yesterday,” a song about regret over the way things turned out, is perfect for the movie “Yesterday,” which should have been better. Written by romantic-comedy veteran Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill,” “Love Actually,” “About Time”) and directed by the creative but not very touchy-feely Danny Boyle (“127 Hours,” “Trainspotting”), it’s a basic but pleasant rom-com in the body of a high-concept fantasy: Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling, moderately talented London singer-songwriter, wakes up in an alternate timeline where The Beatles never existed and he’s the only person who remembers them, opening the door for him to become a superstar by “writing” a series of great pop songs.
What does the movie do with this intriguing premise? Nothing, really. Contrary to what you’d expect (and, not for nothing, what the trailers are selling), this isn’t a movie about how great The Beatles were or how the world would be different without them. In the movie, the world is exactly the same except that Oasis never formed (obviously, but what about all the other Beatles-inspired bands?). A few other things are missing, too, but they’re included as jokes and have nothing to do with the Fab Four.
As far as Beatles appreciation goes, the film has exactly one (1) actual Beatles recording — “Hey, Jude,” played over the closing credits — and a multitude of snippets of Beatles covers sung by Patel. Except for his lovely rendition of the title tune (and Boyle does a great job capturing people’s reaction to hearing this miraculous song for the first time), none of these renditions is remarkable in any way. Characters talk about how great the songs are, but there’s no discussion of what makes them great, or why they’re any better than, say, the songs of Ed Sheeran, who appears as himself as an early champion of Jack’s career. Jack doesn’t even make any modifications for modern sensibilities. He sings “She was just 17” at the beginning of “I Saw Her Standing There” as if it’s not 2019 and “She was just 17” is not a highly problematic way to open a pop song.
To the extent that the film is interested in how the world would be without The Beatles, it’s only in the service of the central rom-com dilemma, and it’s manifested in a gross, tasteless tangent down the avenue of “How old would John Lennon have lived to be if he hadn’t been assassinated?” (I almost cannot believe that this sequence was kept in.)
In short: If you wanted to write a movie with the premise of “only one person remembers the most popular band of all time” but you didn’t know which band that was, so you just wrote “[INSERT BAND NAME]” throughout the screenplay and then looked it up when you were finished … well, I don’t know that that version would be much different from this one.
And what is the central rom-com dilemma, anyway? Jack’s lifelong platonic friend Ellie (Lily James), a schoolteacher who moonlighted as his manager when he was a nobody, has been in love with him for years and he never realized it. Now that he does realize it, he’s big and famous and touring the world — under false pretenses, mind you, which is eating at him but he can’t tell the truth about it because it wouldn’t make sense — and that’s not a lifestyle conducive to having a romantic partner who has to stay home in London. Like most rom-com choices, the correct answer is a no-brainer (Gee, should I keep lying to everyone and be lonely, or should I come clean and be in love????) and we’re just waiting for him to get around to choosing it.
That being said … ugh, I smiled for a lot of it. Boyle, almost desperate to find something visually interesting in all this, has a few tricks up his sleeve, notably when Jack is trying to remember Beatles lyrics (he can’t just Google them, after all) and we see what he’s thinking. Patel is a likable everyman, James’ enthusiasm is infectious, and Kate McKinnon is amusing as a ruthless record label exec who keeps telling Jack he’s not handsome enough to be a star. (As my friend Vince Mancini pointed out, this is ridiculous not just because Himesh Patel isn’t bad-looking, but because they keep saying it when Ed Sheeran is standing right there providing a counterexample.) Laying aside that the movie isn’t interested in what I wanted it to be interested in, it’s only so-so at addressing what it is interested in — but it’s just so-so enough to be more good than bad. The more I think about it the less I like it, though, so I’d better stop while it’s still a B-.
P.S. For a discussion of how the world actually would be different if The Beatles never existed, here’s a Twitter thread.
C+ (1 hr., 56 min.; )