‘Yesterday’ and the necessity of self-deprecating humor

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 5:30pm

Universal Pictures

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NOSELL

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a select assortment of pop culture phenomena ceased to exist, only for a handful of people to remember them and have to figure out what to do with that memory?

I haven’t either, but “Yesterday” builds a premise around that hyperspecific conflict, specifically as it pertains to The Beatles and the lone, previously unsuccessful musician who remembers them, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, “EastEnders”). It was a calculated risk — reportedly, 10 million dollars’ worth — to bank an entire film on such a particular dilemma. Why not another band? Better yet, why not pose the same question of another historical phenomenon: something of graver consequence, like a war? But it’s not my place to postulate about what they could have done; I’m assessing what they did. While they ran with their initial risk, the makers of “Yesterday” played it safe otherwise, and left us with a harmless but perfunctory romantic comedy.

Humor has the potential to make laughable concepts appear intelligent. Shows like “Seinfeld” got away with it for years. Such an application of humor is vital for a film like “Yesterday,” to get us past the peculiarity, if not absurdity, of its scenario. In the movie, however, the humor was hit or miss, depending partly on who you are. Just as some of the jokes on the original “Office” bewilder fans of the American adaption, “Yesterday”’s British brand of humor may not resonate with the Yankees in the crowd who aren’t bloody interested in the BBC. It relied heavily on situational comedy and deadpan delivery, both of which Patel had the perfect, nonplussed face for.

Regardless of who you are, however, the bulk of “Yesterday”’s humor will feel like it’s missing something, and that’s self-deprecation. It’s what made Ed Sheeran’s (“Bridget Jones’s Baby”) cameo so surprisingly hilarious with all the jokes about “ginger rap” and subpar lyricism he had to dodge, and Kate McKinnon’s (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) brutally honest assessments of record executives’ intentions wickedly funny. Curiously, “Yesterday” relegated this kind of humor to the sidelines, when its absurd, world-without-Beatles, butterfly-effect-be-damned main storyline needed it most. We can’t be expected to take you seriously if you’re not self-aware enough to laugh at your quirks.

An exercise in self-deprecation: If I were in Jack’s place, one of the few remaining keepers of The Beatles’s music, I’m afraid whatever musical genius John, Paul, George and Ringo offered the world would be lost. That’s not what screenwriter Richard Curtis (“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”) had in store for Jack, however, and this element of the film makes a bold, albeit probably inadvertent, comment on musical genius. By allocating Jack the same proportion of success The Beatles enjoyed from their work, the film implies songs are habitable rather than the product of unique genius, a nice jolt to the Western conception of creativity. There’s a clumsiness to even this maneuver, however, as the remakes of Beatles’s hits are touristy, forgettable covers at best, and, on top of the musical mediocrity, no one in the movie ever pauses to interrogate what, if anything, makes Beatles lyrics timeless.

That is another one of the film’s biggest faults: With classic cinematic mistrust of audience’s intelligence, it either brushes over or hastens to answer all of the questions it raises. The one original question it stammers out, it hastens to answer in no uncertain terms for us. Jack’s ethical dilemma, as to whether he should pass off another’s work as his own? Solved. The romantic void Jack must cope with as his fame accelerates exponentially? Filled. Don’t you know, his best friend Ellie (Lily James, “Baby Driver”) has been in love with him all his life, and her confession suddenly flips a switch for him. Yes, “Yesterday”: The clumsy comedy comes with clumsy love story on the side. Not what you ordered? Once again, me neither.

“Yesterday” does very little harm, but also little notable good, taking few risks, aside from building a movie around a world where the Beatles didn’t record their own songs. You’re probably better off queuing up Abbey Road and asking yourself what your life would be like without those songs, than seeing this film’s minimally inventive take on that question.