Review: In 'Yesterday,' 2 boring people find love in a Beatles-less world

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Ever hate a movie for a totally different reason than you expected?

The premise of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday—what if you were the only person in the world who remembered the Beatles’ music?—sounded like a setup for disappointment. Would Richard Curtis’ script ingeniously explore what sort of butterfly effect the Beatles’ non-existence might have? Would it address the possibility that as great as Lennon-McCartney were as songwriters, their music might not feel quite as magical outside of their historical context? Nah on both counts, of course.

What I didn’t expect, though, was to be distracted from my annoyance with the film’s goofy high concept by how ineptly Yesterday would function as a romcom. Curtis is the guy responsible for Love, Actually, so you’d think he’d know how a movie like this is supposed to work. But the romantic plot lurches and staggers, tossing arbitrary roadblocks between the would-be lovers to keep them apart until the movie’s ready for them to be together.

The happily-ever-after-ers in question are Jack Patel (Himesh Patel), a singer-songwriter of no special talent, and his friend, manager, and biggest fan Ellie Appleton (an unconvincingly frumped down Lily James—it was so much easier to pretend pretty women weren’t attractive back before glasses became sexy). Ellie’s been schlepping gear from one coffeehouse gig to the next all these years because she’s in love with Jack, but somehow that possibility has never occurred to him—a fact that seems more fantastical than the Beatles’ music suddenly vanishing from public memory.

While Jack’s biking home from a gig one night, the electricity fails worldwide for 12 seconds and a bus wallops him. After his recovery, he plays “Yesterday” for his pals, and he’s stunned that they’ve never heard it. After a quick Google reveals that he’s indeed in a Beatle-less world, Jack decides to pass off the Beatles’ songs as his own (despite some misgivings), and eventually he’s touring with Ed Sheeran.

As the stress of the deceit gnaws at Jack, the movie races into a minefield of unfortunate scenes in which he learns the importance of Being True to Himself and, of course, LOVE. Along the way there’s a dollop of Beatley fan service (including the obligatory trip to Liverpool) as the songs become plot points and setups for punchlines. The movie’s idea of big laugh is a character telling Ed Sheeran, “You look like Ed Sheeran” and Ed Sheeran responding, “I am Ed Sheeran.”

Sheeran plays himself (doesn’t he always?) and does so likably enough, which is more than can be said for most of the supporting cast. Joel Fry is a bumbling drunk/stoner of a comic sidekick who’s given no decent jokes, and as Jack’s greedy manager, Kate McKinnon isn’t so much playing a role as doing an extended bit.

Ultimately, Yesterday seems to exist solely to remind us that the Beatles were great and falling in love is wonderful, two bits of conventional wisdom that seem to be doing just fine without help from Boyle and Curtis. Still, who knows? Maybe Yesterday will encourage Ed Sheeran to take some time off from music and pursue a movie career. Now that would be a happy ending.

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Sophia Di Martino
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Area theaters, now showing