Sifting through the daily excess of media pumped into the world, few phrases are as discouraging as the faux incredulity of “Wow, you’ve never heard of them before?” Perhaps you’ve heard it at a party or on a date, when the conversation casually wanders into music or movies or comics. The instant you reveal you don’t know something the other person does, a condescending smirk smacks across their face.
Now, imagine a cultural gatekeeper removed from niche interests, one who thinks their taste is high-class for liking the most recognizable touchstones in human history: a “Ghostbusters” superfan treating a childhood favorite as his own private boys’ club, or a cook convinced they’re deserving of three Michelin stars for knowing how to slice bread.
Danny Boyle’s atrocious new movie “Yesterday” operates as a two-hour interaction with this type of person, somebody playing the prophet for celebrating the best-selling band in history. It is a positively soul-sucking mediocrity that burns like an acid bath and grinds the viewer down to the bone. As a romance, it’s putrid. As a morality play, it’s indecipherable. Even as a best-of collection, it’s unimaginatively curated.
The film stars newcomer Himesh Patel as world-class hack Jack Malik. After a dead-end gig, Jack seems ready to throw in the towel on his failing career as a singer-songwriter, much to the chagrin of his infatuated manager Ellie (Lily James). “It’ll take a miracle,” he whines, minutes before he is smote by a commuter bus. When Jack awakens in a hospital, he finds that he’s entered an alternate universe, in which he seems to be the only person who remembers the Beatles. Naturally, he proceeds to throw away what crumbs of artistic integrity he may have had before and plagiarize every baby-boomer bop he can remember in a last-ditch attempt to become rich and famous.
Jack is an absolutely infuriating person. An early scene, in which his parents offhandedly interrupt the opening chords of “Let It Be,” climaxes with the dolt erupting like a volcano and blasting his audience for being so ignorant. “You’re the first people on earth who are going to hear this,” he screams.
Jack’s frustration is played for laughs, but in a smug, self-aggrandizing manner that preserves his righteousness. The scene condemns the casual dismissiveness of his family, yet it’s impossible to side against the parents since Jack isn’t presenting original work in the first place. It’s a confused mishmash of comic contradictions that resorts to a tirade, only making Jack more unlikable in the process.
Never once abating during the film, Jack’s pettiness continues to infect his private interactions. A songwriting competition against Ed Sheeran (playing himself, atrociously) ends with Jack deciding against exercising his own creative independence and passing off a cover of “The Long and Winding Road” as his own creation. Without a millisecond of hesitation, Jack loses any will to practice the craft he’s supposedly loved his whole life, resorting to copycatting in even the most inconsequential instances.
Jack is hailed as the Shakespeare of the modern day and quickly rises to international celebrity. Naturally, that leaves no room for poor Ellie, who can’t see her small stupid self fitting into the big, big world of Hollywood genius. Why would Jack give the time of day to the plain Jane who’s been drooling on his shoulder since elementary school? He’s too busy traveling to Liverpool to look at local landmarks so he can pretend to write songs about them.
Screenwriter Richard Curtis can’t imagine human behavior outside a series of meet-cutes and lectures of emotional exposition. “Yesterday” does to the music of the Beatles what Curtis’ most vile work, “Love Actually,” does to romance — it conceives the songs as an intangible, euphoric parasite that gets us all in the end. And just as “Love Actually” achieves that by writing its women as subordinates to the men, eager to bend over for their bosses, “Yesterday” molds Ellie as a similarly vapid fabrication. She’s not as much a romantic interest as she is a doting toad awaiting true love’s first kiss so that she can transform into a human being.
There’s a lot of nasty fun that can be had with a tacky premise and a reprehensible protagonist. What sinks “Yesterday” is its insistent chumminess, painting Jack as a pitiable bloke as opposed to the opportunistic moron he is. A committed coward would at least be somewhat honorable, but all Jack does is sulk after stroking his ego. His one-note sad sackery makes “Yesterday” an exceptionally poopy movie, defined by its saggy bulges and miasmic sting. It’s made all the more unpleasant because it insists that the world cuddle together in its warm, mushy diaper.