Yesterday, this bad movie seemed so far away, now it looks as though it’s here to stay.
Welcome one last time to the grand finale of Listmas 2019, the reveal of My Bottom Film of the Year. On Saturday, we covered the first half of my Bottom 10 (go here for that), and yesterday we took the unusual step of covering just #5 to #2 (go here for that) because it turned out that I wrote so much for my #1 that it needed to be broken up into its own article. This is after I had made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t write so much about my #1 for it to function as an entirely separate article, in an effort to assuage my blood pressure, so that shows my naivety, huh? Anyways, you’ve waited long enough so I can rev-it’s Yesterday, it was obviously going to be Yesterday.
Spoilers abound. Proceed with caution.
Dir: Danny Boyle
Star: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon
Once upon a time, Richard Curtis was good at writing. I know that nowadays it’s fun to clown on him and the types of movies he’s associated with because those in the Film Internet and General Hot-Take spheres have made a fortune out of deservedly raking Love, Actually over the coals, but let me assure you that Richard Curtis really did used to be good at his vocation. Better than good, actually. Curtis was a major writer for three of the most beloved British sitcoms of all-time – Blackadder, Mr. Bean, and The Vicar of Dibley – shows which still hold up to this day thanks to their rapier wit, entertaining characters, and the exact right mix of sentimentality and cynicism to make the shows bite but in a comforting distinctly British manner (although it’s been a while since I’ve watched any Dibley so feel free to drop that one if it’s actually a bit shit). Even if his career went no further than there, he’d still be considered one of the all-time greats of British comedy. But then, in 1994, he went and wrote the screenplay for Four Weddings and a Funeral, which became the highest-grossing British movie of all-time upon release and scored two actual Academy Award nominations (one for the screenplay and one for the film itself). And then, seemingly to prove that wasn’t a fluke, he pumped out the screenplay for mega-success Notting Hill and co-wrote the adaptation of Bridget Jones’s Diary.
All three of those movies not only codified and re-popularised a very British strain of rom-com, inspiring legions of imitators to this day (Paul Feig’s recent Last Christmas in particular has meticulously studied the tone and verbal & visual language of Golden Age Curtis), but they largely hold up too. In a shameful confession due to my professed love of rom-coms, I only saw Notting Hill for the first time last February, when it was put back in cinemas on Valentine’s Day for its 20th anniversary, and thought it was mostly fantastic, so this isn’t just nostalgia talking. In his prime, Curtis was so damned good at writing lovable, entertaining characters with surprising depth who, even when their appearance in the narrative was limited and contextual, seemed to have lives outside of our check-ins. He knew how to write crackling dialogue. He knew how to plant the set-ups and conflicts required for the eventual payoffs to soar skyward. He excellently wove character work into consistent underlying themes which provided the substantive depth required to make revisiting low-calorie comfort foods like rom-coms (not an insult) so enriching.
Then, one day, he just… stopped doing those things. It is tempting to say that him finally getting behind the camera for Love, Actually was the downfall. An overstuffed ill-judged active crime scene of a movie that deliberately played to all his biggest weaknesses as a writer – a penchant for glurge-laden montages set near-exclusively to the worst music ever made, the one designated boorish best friend comic relief who is not funny enough to mitigate the grossness of their behaviour, the occasional presence of some regressive ideas about gender and sexuality – yet became a big hit and a perennial Christmas staple anyway. But I don’t think it’s entirely Love, Actually that’s brought about his downfall. Somehow, some way, Curtis just… lost his talent. The Bridget Jones sequel was turgid, The Boat That Rocked frustratingly inconsistent and muddled, his screenplays for War Horse and Trash were dripping with so much sickly sentimentality that cinema floors needed hosing down after every screening in order to clean up the inadvertent dry heaving they caused, and the less said for his third writer-director effort About Time the much better. Sometimes, his work became mean-spiritedly edgy for no reason (as with this dropped climate change ad he co-scripted) and other times, as with the otherwise alright TV adaptation of Esio Trot, he performed self-sabotage on his own work – there by loading it down with an intrusive and useless framing device which took away from the main story for the inclusion of James Corden, Ruiner of Nice Things.
Yesterday, his collaboration with director Danny Boyle, is the absolute nadir of his career plunge over the last several years. At one point during my viewing of this excruciatingly awful movie, I near-enough shouted out “FUCK OFF” in response to the events unfolding despite being in a rather populated cinema filled with people who were really enjoying themselves otherwise. I promise you, dear reader, that I did not intend to be the very people I hate at a movie screening and I felt deep shame the second that those words escaped my mouth. It was an instinctual reaction that I could not suppress until it was too late, like laughing at a particularly hilarious joke or throwing a milkshake at a far-right cunt. But it was also the culmination of the movie actively having pissed me all the way off by the time I reached that particular part. Yesterday is the point where Richard Curtis officially got indefensibly lazy.
What is Yesterday about? The answer, it turns out, is nothing. You might think that it’s a fun little silly fantasy movie about what a world in which The Beatles never existed would be like, the ways in which pop culture changed, and an examination of why their music meant so much to so many people and whether these songs could still have as total an impact if they were written for the first time today. But it turns out, no, Yesterday is not about its high-concept premise. For one, Curtis displays no rhyme or reason as to the exact ripple effects on the history of music that removing The Beatles altogether would cause. Most obviously in how Oasis no longer exist yet Coldplay still do, but specifically in how popular music as a whole still sounds very much like it does in our actual Beatles-featuring reality. I’m more vexed, however, by the complete lack of insight Curtis has about the songs themselves. The world of Yesterday, even after decades of musical evolution, still goes gaga for these songs simply because… well, they’re Beatles songs and Beatles songs were all great, right? I’m a big Beatles fan and even I am sick of surface-level “The Beatles just wrote great songs!” takes! It’s boring! Everybody’s done that take from every conceivable angle!
But, whatever, Yesterday isn’t actually about The Beatles or their music, it’s just a catchy universal hook for a premise. That’s fine. So, the film is actually utilising its high-concept premise and the commonly-accepted knowledge that a lot of Beatles songs are really good to examine imposter syndrome, that sensation every artist gets when they strike it big with a truly great piece of work that they’re actually a massive fraud forever at risk of being found out for the failure they truly believe deep-down they are. Jack (Patel), after all, is a mediocre-to-poor songwriter who is never going to make anything great of his own and the ethical implications of profiting from work only he remembers eat away at him throughout the entire movie.
Solid premise, lots of potential and at times pretty well realised, as in the scene where Ed Sheeran quizzes Jack on the meaning behind “Hey Jude” who stumbles through a largely-unconvincing lie because he both hasn’t thought about the meaning of the song beyond its composition and he hasn’t had the personal history and context writing it that Paul McCartney did (the song’s an ode to Julian Lennon after his father John left his mother for Yoko Ono). Except that Curtis sabotages the tension at every turn – most especially when the payoff involves the only three other people who remember The Beatles and know Jack is a fraud actively encouraging him to keep up the ruse for the altruistic reasons of the music just being that good you guys – and this thread is constantly forgotten in favour of Curtis’s real subject.
Yesterday is about a guy and a girl getting together, like most other Richard Curtis movies. The guy, Jack, is a struggling musician whose best friend since childhood, a primary school teacher called Ellie (James), is both his manager and hopelessly in love with him even though he can’t tell that extremely obvious fact. Sure, why not? Curtis has done this particular dance to death but I’m cool with him busting it out for old times sake in this energised rom-com revival we got going on. Except that, as mentioned, Curtis has mysteriously lost all the talent he had back in the days of Four Weddings and Notting Hill, so Yesterday ends up completely failing at being a compelling or even mildly charming rom-com.
There’s no spark between Jack and Ellie, no reason why these friends would want to become lovers other than bland heteronormative ideas of coupling. Curtis gives Jack no depth of personality, he’s a bland whinge of a leading man without much in the way of personal desires so his constant complaining ends up grating and kind of asshole-ish even before the designated point in the narrative where he’s supposed to become a bit of an asshole. But Jack is a fountain of personality and focus compared to Ellie, whose entire character keeps changing on a scene-by-scene basis – one minute she’s Jack’s ultra-supportive manager, the next she’s arbitrarily deciding to stay home, one minute she’s happy that he’s a massive success, the next she’s hoping he never actually gets big, one minute she wants to be with him, the next she’s suddenly reticent to commit to him.
So, Yesterday isn’t even an effective rom-com because it simultaneously can’t think up any reasons why its leads should be together nor why they shouldn’t get together at the narrative’s outset rather than a turgid two hours later down the line. Therefore, it is about nothing and has no idea what it wants to be about, which results in a horrendous screenplay dragging everybody else down to Curtis’s level with no idea what they’re supposed to be doing. Patel & James are likeable and charming actors left completely stranded by inconsistent and confusing characters almost purpose-designed to make even charisma supernovas look charmless and hateable. Kate McKinnon and Lamorne Morris, talented comic actors with fantastic instincts, are similarly baffled by a screenplay whose entire understanding of the record industry appears to have come from a Reddit forum post and without a single even giggle-worthy line for them to sink their teeth into. Director Danny Boyle meanwhile, a man whose films I mostly really like but with the caveat that he needs a clear understanding of the material he’s been tasked with otherwise he flails, is trying to direct the thing like it’s a musical even though that is the very last thing Yesterday is trying to be, so the overabundance of showoff-y style ends up feeling like the director having a tantrum over not getting his creative way.
Which brings us to the point when I boiled over. Because Yesterday is aiming to be rom-com even though it is at a total loss for reasons why Jack and Ellie both should and should not get together, Curtis spends basically the entire two hours leaning on all of the absolute hackiest artificial road blocks possible to delay the ending of his movie. Jack’s completely oblivious to such a degree it’s a wonder he has even the one working brain cell, then he likes her but isn’t sure she likes him, then her attempted declaration of love is interrupted three times by Jack’s useless unfunny parents before being abandoned, then they have a one-night stand but don’t go further because reasons, then he wants her but she suddenly decides to do the bit in Notting Hill where Hugh Grant turns down Julia Roberts out of self-respect even though her arc has nothing to do with that… on and on and on it goes dragging out the inevitable until it stops being cute and starts getting aggravating.
The point in which I lost it – and, incidentally, to such an embarrassed degree that I had nothing left to give once the movie pays a visit to the still-living John Lennon whom it treats like a beautiful saint who never ever did anything wrong, fuck outta here – came when, ahead of an album launch gig, Ellie walks in on Jack just as Kate McKinnon’s evil manager is giving him a kiss on the forehead and Ellie assumes Jack’s rebounding to someone else after her rejection. Also, she’s gotten another boyfriend. My instinctual “FUCK OFF” was due to this being the point where I lost all respect for Richard Curtis. Because to see him fall this hard, to lean this heavily on lazy hackery of the highest degree, was a personal offence to me as someone who used to greatly admire his works, which formed a vital part of my media education growing up.
Mr. Curtis, Richard, you used to be better than this! You had a wit! You had charm! You cared about the interior lives of your characters, and the themes and specific details of your narratives which made the lapses into cliché cute instead of rage-inducing! You used to have so much passion in your work! WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?! When did you decide that THIS was good enough?! YOU. WERE. BETTER. THAN. THIS.
Perhaps the most telling thing about Yesterday is this simple observation: Ed Sheeran stars as an asshole, self-deprecating caricature of himself – the kind of deluded dick-whipping genius whose ringtone is his own song and whose music is depicted in-film as endemic of the soulless committee-designed lifeless pop that The Beatles’ music stands in refreshing opposition to – and it’s actually pretty good, and he’s not terrible as an actor… then the closing montage where Jack and Ellie finally get together for good is sincerely soundtracked by an original Ed Sheeran number penned specially for the film. Fuck this movie. And Richard, if you’re still reading this, I am so very disappointed in you. Please go away until you can figure out what has happened to your work over the last 17 years. I promise that if you’re able to recapture that magic, I shall be the first in line to congratulate you and happily proclaim your grand comeback. But after Yesterday, I honestly don’t believe you ever can.
Callie Petch has got a chilly feeling they don’t understand.