What if you woke up one day and realized you were the only person who remembers the Beatles? Danny Boyle’s crowd-pleasing, if slight, “Yesterday” uses this intriguing premise — and killer soundtrack — to deliver a sweet, sappy romance. “Uses” might be a bit generous; the core idea serves little function except as a prop for the romance.
For flailing singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), this presents a unique career opportunity. No one has heard of the Fab Four, which means he alone has access to a back catalog of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written. If only he could remember all the words!
“Yesterday” tracks Jack’s meteoric ascent in the music industry and plays like a standard artist-on-the-rise saga. But the heart of the story is the star-crossed relationship between Jack and Ellie (Lily James), his lifelong pal/manager/woman who has spent her entire existence desperately in love with him.
Beyond the obvious hook, the script by Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”) and Jack Barth never feels sure of itself or how to achieve a resolution. As a result, it goes through the motions of Jack feeling like a fraud, wondering if he should chuck it all for a chance at love, and … well, that’s pretty much it. There’s not enough substance to stretch into the nearly two-hour runtime, and the story flounders about.
As a cautionary tale of a ruthless corporate music world, the film is toothless and bland — except when Kate McKinnon shows up. Her sharp-tongued record exec feels out of place and plucked from an “SNL” sketch, but she hijacks every scene.
When the filmmakers focus on Jack and Ellie, it’s earnest and endearing. Patel is charming and affable as the clueless boy with a golden ticket in both career and love. But outside of being eternally startled by every new situation, Jack never displays much personality. It’s James who drives their drama. She’s fantastic. Watching her twist her pained face into a faux smile to let Jack off the hook tugs at even cold, dead heartstrings. The film is a much better movie when she’s on screen.
“Yesterday” offers no answers or explanations. It presents its idea and runs — and you either buy it or you don’t.
The specter of unrealized potential lingers over the film. But directed with Boyle’s strong hand and visual flair, the result is an engaging charmer. Besides, it’s hard to go too wrong with this soundtrack, even if the only lasting impression is that you hum the chorus from “Hey Jude” for a few days.
★★½ “Yesterday,” with Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Joel Fry, Ed Sheeran. Directed by Danny Boyle, from a screenplay by Jack Barth and Richard Curtis. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and language. Opens June 28 at multiple theaters.