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(2019) ** Pg-13
116 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Danny Boyle. Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, James Corden.

/content/films/5167/1.jpgIn a time when brand recognition reigns supreme in the movie marketplace, the catalog of the world-famous band The Beatles certainly glitters like gold. But buyer beware: Julie Taymor’s 2007 jukebox-musical Across the Universe—crammed with 33 Beatles songs—made back less than half of its production budget at the worldwide box office. Writing a story to compete with wall-to-wall classic pop music hardly guarantees artistic success either, which brings us to the Beatles-themed rom com Yesterday.

Written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually) and directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Yesterday proceeds from a cutesy “high concept” what-if premise. Following a twelve-second global blackout, the Beatles songbook spirits out of existence, except in the mind of one man: 27-year-old Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a singer-songwriter languishing in obscurity. Before his windfall, Jack complains to his lifelong friend and faithful manager Ellie (Lily James), “You’ve got to stop pretending we’re in a thrilling story with a big exciting end” (mmmm, that’s good screenwriting!), but shortly, Jack’s on the short and winding road to viral international fame.

Before you know it, Jack’s introducing the world to “Yesterday” (one of fifteen Beatles tunes Patel covers in the film), living the artist’s dream of “I wish I’d written that.” There’s situation comedy in the indignities that face an unknown musician, but it’s not long before smirky songsmith Ed Sheeran (playing himself) turns up to hire Jack as an opening act. Sheeran’s fictional manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon, stealing the show again) swiftly poaches Jack from Ellie, who won’t abandon her day job as a Suffolk schoolteacher. Just as fame pulls Jack and Ellie apart, they begin to reckon with the depth of their not-so-platonic love.

Though the musical angle dominates, it’s a red herring for an equally unbelievable romantic comedy. The obstacles facing the couple hardly seem insurmountable, and Curtis labors to cut short every conversation between the two before it gets to the “We Can Work It Out” stage. Missed opportunities abound for a meaningful examination of an artist’s insecurities (or as a friend pointed out about Jack’s Indian heritage, the Beatles’ cultural appropriation); instead, we get a moral dilemma (should I plagiarize songs that were never written?) that’s impossible and therefore irrelevant, paired with a wan romance. All you need is love…and a better script.

Though a trivial pursuit, Yesterday also qualifies as a crowd pleaser, the kind of uncomplicated “audience movie” that tends to separate critics and audiences. Boyle keeps the film’s two hours breezy, and if one turns off one’s brain, Yesterday can be enjoyed as an empty vessel divertingly loaded up with great tunes. Double-threat Patel is a genuine find (though he’s known abroad for his 566 episodes of British soap-opera institution EastEnders): a charismatic comic lead with a lovely tenor, Patel proves better than his star-making vehicle. (Given even less to work with, James does her sunny best to invest a mannequin with character.)

Make the mistake of considering this feature-length stunt’s many logical fumbles and obvious but ignored questions, and you’re likely to get angry. Magic realism can work when it makes one simple ask (a boy gets his wish to be “Big,” for example), but Yesterday is lazy nonsense that only gets more dumb with each plot twist. Curtis could have easily spackled it all with an “it’s all a dream ending” to cheaply but efficiently excuse plot holes while retroactively sharpening the story into a musician’s neurotic fantasy, but he’s apparently too good for that. To paraphrase “Strawberry Fields Forever,” nothing is real…and everything to get hung about.

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