Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis have a long track record between the two of them that would in no way suggest the lazy mediocrity that is Yesterday. Great filmmakers, an intriguing premise, a solid cast and an entire catalog of beloved music should be more than enough for an enjoyable summer movie, and perhaps I was expecting too much out of it. I was instead left with lingering ideas of all Yesterday might have been.
Jack (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter who can’t seem to get anyone to listen to his music, despite the help of his ‘manager’ Ellie (Lily James) who has a deep unrequited love for him. One day, he’s hit by a bus at the same moment there’s a global power outage, and after waking up in the hospital and playing the Beatles song ‘Yesterday’ on the guitar, it’s clear he now lives in a universe where nobody remembers The Beatles. He pounces on this opportunity, selling the remembered songs as his own and becomes an overnight sensation.
There are aspects of this film that work. Kate McKinnon plays an evil fast-talking music manager, and she seems to think she’s in a better movie than she is. She hangs onto this smaller role by her teeth and makes the same impression she does every time we see her. And the film itself has a breezy, enjoyable pace in its first half that doesn’t suggest the inconsistent, shallow mess that follows. And that’s about all I liked.
This is BBC regular Himesh Patel’s first starring role in a feature film production, and he does not give the viewer any convincing reason to care about Jack Malik. He’s not a particularly talented musician or singer and his character, in general, is wholly unlikable. As an actor, he has the same deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face the entire movie, and that’s pretty much all there is to his performance.
Jack treats Ellie, who has no fewer than three dramatic monologues where she’s begging him to love her, as an afterthought and the film treats her as one too. Lily James proved what a talented singer she was in last summer’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and a film that is centered around some of the most iconic music of all time doesn’t even capitalize on that. Never mind the singing, this film is a gross waste of her talent. Ellie is a sap who has literally nothing exciting going on beneath the surface, and she’ll travel 300+ miles to visit the man who looks past her time and time again. It’s bad enough to have your female lead be the desperate manic pixie dream girl, but then to waste an actress like Lily James in this role is just insulting.
The world-building in this film promises a more substantial payoff than the movie wants to give us. A running gag explains other things the world has forgotten about during the blackout, and when we look at what has not escaped public consciousness (Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, etc.), this suggests a grim dystopian nightmarish underworld or perhaps a parallel universe that its characters must escape from. But the film decides to not go there and instead make this a sluggish rehash of every rom-com trope you could possibly imagine.
This plays like a half-hearted remake of A Christmas Carol. A man wants fame and fortune, the man gets it, and the man realizes there’s more to life than fame and fortune. There. I’ve described the entire plot of Yesterday. It’s breezy and passably entertaining, but incredibly disappointing and frustrating once you think about where this premise could have gone. It starts with creativity and lots of questions and then refuses to answer any of them. I definitely expected more from Boyle and Curtis. This is a summer of maddeningly mediocre movies and Yesterday is another one that will be quickly forgotten.