What would the world be like today if The Beatles had never existed? Spend a few moments musing on that. If you do, I guarantee that you’ll come up with something more interesting than anything in the new movie based on that premise, Yesterday.
Let me correct myself: this lightweight audience please only pretends to be about that premise. In fact, it uses the idea of an un-Beatled world as a MacGuffin, a disposable plot point to frame one of screenwriter Richard Curtis’ standard cutsey but insubstantial rom-coms.
Curtis, you will recall, marked his place in film history with Love, Actually, in which he met his inability to flesh out a story and characterizations by simply cramming eight of them into one movie.
Here, our couple who are meant to be if only more than 50% of them realized it are Himesh Patel as Jack, a struggling singer-songwriter, and Ellie, who manages his career (such as it is) when she’s not teaching school. That she is played by Lily James at her most adorable, mooning at Jack with expressions that can be used by acting teachers as textbook examples of unrequited love, gives up the game early on in the movie. Why Ellie has been carrying a torch for him for 20 years, and why seems to have no idea of this, are the kind of obvious questions that Curtis can never be bothered with.
To kill time before the inevitable happy ending (seriously, you cannot possibly consider this a spoiler), Curtis creates a random unexplained event which causes The Beatles to be erased from history. Only Jack remembers that they ever existed, giving him the ability to pass of the songs of Lennon and McCartney as his own.
I cannot overstate this: the movie does just about nothing of any interest with this idea. The few times when it tries to are so half-assed that they trip over themselves: Jack discovers that Oasis also never existed, which is cute enough except that his career got started when he performed a cover of “Wonderwall” at a school talent show, so if Oasis had never existed neither would his career. And if you ask yourself why Coldplay still exists in this world, you’re going down a rabbit hole that will do you no good.
Directed with typical smoothness but little apparent interest by Danny Boyle (not that I begrudge him the fat paycheck this project obviously represented), Yesterday seems to have been made for an audience that only vaguely knows who The Beatles were. (In other words, the same market that made Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman megahits.) They will be much more interested in appearances by Kate McKinnon (who seems to have directed herself) and Ed Sheerhan. For the grands in the audience who do remember John, Paul, George and Ringo, there’s an appearance near the climax of the film that is so shamelessly calculated to jerk tears that you have to be impressed by it, even if it actually adds little to the movie. The actual ending, when it arrives, shows that Curtis has as little ability to end this story as he did to flesh it out.
Anything I have to say about Midsommar needs to begin with the admission that I walked out it at about the halfway point. (It runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is far too long for any horror movie that wasn’t directed by Stanley Kubrick.)
This is not to say that it’s a bad movie: for what it is, it is well-crafted and engrossing, if in no particular hurry to get where it is going. I left because it became clear to me that where it was going was no place I wanted to visit. It is the second film by writer-director Ari Aster, whose debut Hereditary was a creepy domestic horror thriller ruined (for me) by a prolonged, nasty ending. Given that Midsommar hearkens back (as did Hereditary, to a lesser degree) to the school of nihilistic pagan movies like The Wicker Man and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, I had no desire to see how Aster was going to up the ante. Call me a wuss, but as I get older my tolerance for cinematic cruelty has pretty much vanished. It was all I could do to sit through the opening scenes of a horrible (and unexplained) family tragedy that befalls American college student Dani (Florence Pugh), exacerbated by the indifference of her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). The two try to repair their crumbling relationship by joining a group of his friends who are heading to Sweden to take part in a pagan summer ritual that only takes place every 90 years. I left after a scene of painful death presented in such detail that it was as if Aster was daring the likes of me to sit still for more. Sorry: I know my limits.