Home » At the Multiplex » Yesterday
         

Yesterday

“Yesterday? Why do you want the screen times for yesterday? Which movie yesterday? Oh, you mean the screen times for Yesterday! God, that’s gonna get confusing.” –The box office clerk, just before he sold my ticket

Just listening to the premise for this one, I already knew it was going to heap on more bullshit than I could handle. I had to go see it just to find out what the hell it was. And I’m honestly still not entirely sure.

Yesterday is the story of Jack Malik, played by newcomer Himesh Patel. He works part-time as a put-upon warehouse employee while pursuing his real dream as a singer/songwriter, with assistance from his childhood best friend/manager/love interest Ellie (Lily James). Jack’s “career” has just hit rock-bottom when a weird (and never-explained) confluence of events sends Jack into a parallel universe where the Beatles never became famous. Thus Jack is free to perform the Beatles’ discography from memory, claim their work as his own, and ride to overnight success on the backs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Where do I even begin with this?

Let’s set aside the weird twelve-second global blackout that — coupled with Jack’s bike accident — shoots our protagonist into an alternate reality. That’s your basic “Twilight Zone” kind of heightened premise built on a single extraordinary leap of logic. It’s a perfectly legitimate storytelling device in fiction, and disbelief has been suspended indefinitely for much less.

No, the big problem here is in the parallel universe itself.

Here we have a world in which the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, and Ed Sheeran (more on him later) all exist as their recognizable selves. Yet Oasis got blinked out of history. Ditto for Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and at least one other worldwide pop culture phenomenon I won’t spoil here. Yet for all of these wildly random little changes — too random to be caused by the Beatles’ disappearance alone — the world of this movie still looks and acts pretty much the same.

Can you begin to imagine what the world would look like without Coca-Cola, long one of the most ubiquitous, profitable, and recognizable brands on the planet? Tobacco has been such a massive cultural, economic, and political influence all over the globe for so many centuries, there’s no way our world would look even remotely the same if cigarettes never existed. And yet the filmmakers included these two seismic plot points for the sake of a couple of throwaway jokes. (And maybe some Pepsi product placement, I dunno.)

The filmmakers want to contrast the ’60s-’70s heyday of the Beatles with the modern pop culture landscape of today. To that end, the movie pokes fun at how dated and ridiculous some of the Beatles’ concepts are when removed from their proper context. Yet this is still very much a movie about how the Beatles’ songs are so impossibly good that they could make somebody the 21st century’s greatest musical act overnight.

The Beatles’ songs are so groundbreaking that they could completely change modern pop culture. And yet those exact same “groundbreaking” songs are apparently so useless that the last 60-odd years in history and pop culture would have led to pretty much the exact same endpoint. Do you see the circular logic here?

The filmmakers want for this to be a movie about chasing your dreams and making the world a better place through music, but none of it rings true because it’s all built on such a self-defeating premise. The movie wants to be a celebration of the Beatles (Because nobody’s ever given the Beatles their fair share of praise, am I right?), while also presenting us with a world that doesn’t seem to be any worse off without them. It’s a one-joke premise that tires quickly, and the comedy has practically nothing to work with when that one joke is played out. And without that one-joke premise, what we’re left with is a boilerplate rags-to-riches story no different from any of the others we haven’t already seen a million times. Swap out the playlist and it might as well be Rock of Ages.

It also doesn’t help that in addition to the heightened premise, we’ve also got heightened characters. There’s Joel Fry as Rocky, the chronically unemployed slacker with a drug affinity and a deficit in social graces. We’ve got Ed Sheeran on hand, gamely playing a parody of himself. But the crown jewel is Kate McKinnon, here playing Jack’s manager as the embodiment of soulless corporate greed. Naturally, because there isn’t a single understated bone in Kate McKinnon’s body, she plays the role as relentlessly over-the-top evil as she possibly can, thereby shredding whatever credibility the movie had left. How can I possibly take this movie seriously or emotionally invest in any of these characters or plotlines when it’s populated by living cartoon characters like these?

On the other hand, there’s nobody who does this sort of thing better than McKinnon, and we all love her for it. Which brings me to the major saving grace of the film.

The performances in this movie are all legitimately charming. The aforementioned Ed Sheeran and Kate McKinnon may be playing outlandish caricatures of themselves, but at least it’s fun to watch and they’re both clearly having a good time of it. Himesh Patel is a remarkable find, Lily James is always a pleasure to see onscreen, and their chemistry is more than potent enough to salvage a romance arc so thin and uninspired that it couldn’t even have looked good on paper.

But easily the greatest performance in the whole movie came from Robert Carlyle. I don’t dare spoil what role he plays and he doesn’t come on until just before the climax, but his brief appearance is hands-down the best three minutes in the film.

Of course, the other big star here is Danny Boyle. Say what you will about the man, but there’s no doubt that Boyle knows how to put together a great-looking movie. Every shot is beautifully stylish, the musical sequences are fantastic, the montages are utterly gorgeous, and the editing is so clean that I didn’t even notice the giant gaping hole shaped like Ana de Armas.

Yesterday is overflowing with charm, but that’s not always enough to save a movie. It’s hard to enjoy a romcom when so many of the characters are too heightened to emotionally invest in. I can’t bring myself to care about a protagonist who changes the world when the world itself makes zero sense. No matter how sincere the themes may be, they’re going to fall apart in a movie built on self-defeating logic.

The musical segments and the delightful cast might be worth a rental if you’re curious. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Leave a Reply