There is a small category of film concepts that are absolutely ideal for a three-minute coming-attractions trailer. But not so much for an entire movie.
It pains me to suggest that “Yesterday” falls into this category. The pain comes from the fact that “Yesterday” has a glorious premise, and that it gets to play around with some of the greatest songs written by humankind.
Those elements are enough to make the time pass agreeably. But dang it, it should have been better.
Here’s the concept: Thanks to a single inexplicable global hiccup, the world wakes up one day without having any knowledge of the Beatles. (There’s also never been any Coca-Cola, and a couple of other things.)
Much to his bewilderment, a struggling musician named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) finds himself the only person who remembers the musical output of the Fab Four. He’s a little sketchy on the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” (what was the bit about picking up rice in a church?), but otherwise he has the songbook down pat.
Jack was about to cash it in with his own spluttering career, but this turn of events is something new. When he starts playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” as his own compositions, the world takes notice.
Even a mighty musical colossus like Ed Sheeran (good-naturedly playing an exaggerated version of himself) pays homage. Soon Jack is snapped up by a shark-like agent (Kate McKinnon, cold as a knife) and vaulted into the heartless world of the big time.
Some of the showbiz satire is pretty good, but screenwriter Richard Curtis keeps his focus on the love story: Jack must weigh his allegiance to his manager, Ellie (Lily James, from “Baby Driver”), a platonic friendship that we are certain will not stay that way.
Getting these two to acknowledge their mutual attraction might’ve been acceptable as one of the storylines in Curtis’ schmaltz-fest “Love Actually.” Here, it keeps dragging us away from the pleasures of the Beatles plot.
“Yesterday” is shamelessly cornball, although this isn’t a huge problem in a movie with built-in appeal. What’s disappointing is the way the film coasts along on its premise, with Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) shifting into autopilot on a regular basis.
Lily James and Himesh Patel have good chemistry, which helps. Patel was a regular on the long-running British TV soap “EastEnders,” and in his first big movie role he proves himself a lively actor and a capable singer. A big part of why the movie stays enjoyable is that instead of watching a movie star play an unknown, you’re watching an unknown play an unknown.
For Beatles devotees, there are some lovely touches. In one sequence — the movie’s big reach — a risky idea flirts with extremely questionable taste.
But still: For all the movie’s mixed results, the songs are front and center. There’s a great moment when Jack is about to debut his new tune, a little number called “Let It Be,” for his parents. He sneaks a look at them just to make sure: Do they really not know that title? Sure enough, they haven’t got a clue. The movie’s main fantasy is the possibility that we can all discover the Beatles for the first time — again.
“Yesterday” (3 stars)
Thanks to a mysterious global hiccup, the world has never known the Beatles — so the one guy who remembers all the songs suddenly gets a great career. Shamelessly cornball, this movie misses a lot of opportunities, but it coasts by on the chemistry of lead actors Himesh Patel and Lily James — and the songs are pretty good, too.
Rating: PG-13, for language
Opening: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall