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Why the rom-com formula doesn't add up in Yesterday
With genre cinema pretty much being overrun by superhero movies, sequels, and remakes, the arrival of Yesterday into cinemas was meant to be a welcome relief. Here we had an original fantasy movie, with a high-concept storyline, about a down-on-his-luck singer-songwriter who suddenly realizes he’s the only person in the world who knows who the Beatles are.
Even the most reluctant of sci-fi fans could get behind this story — because who doesn’t know the songs of the Fab Four, really, and the filmmakers behind the film are two of Britain’s best exports. Danny Boyle has too many great movies under his belt to ignore his latest offering, and even though the last time he went down the rom-com route it ended in critical failure, he had Richard Curtis on script duty to ensure the love story B-plot didn’t go wrong. Or so we thought.
Spoilers within for Yesterday.
The weakest part of Yesterday is the romantic storyline, which is surprising, considering Curtis has spent the last 20 years using the same formula to ensure his movies become some of the most popular of the genre. Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, About Time, all the Bridget Jones movies, every one of these rom-coms follows pretty much the same structure and character types Curtis first utilized in 1989 with The Tall Guy.
Jeff Goldblum's Dexter is a performer who is unlucky in love until love’s lightning strikes and he meets Kate (Emma Thompson), a sex-positive nurse at the local hospital. His housemate is the nymphomaniac Carmen (Geraldine James), who serves as a sounding board for Dexter, and after the plot sees Dexter and Kate separated, the film ends with a mad dash to her place of work for him to declare his love. Oh, and there’s a scene in the rain.
So here we have an awkward romantic lead with a bad dating history, a love interest who is out of their league, a wacky friend, a eureka moment of love, a romantic pursuit, and a downpour — all narrative elements that can be seen in each one of Curtis' subsequent movies. That said, Yesterday misses a few.
Yep, Himesh Patel’s Jack is a bumbling romantic lead who delivers the screenwriter's trademark awkwardness to convincing effect, but the difference here is that there is no sense of him of ever being in love, let alone unlucky in it.
Within the first few scenes of The Tall Guy, Bridget Jones’s Diary, About Time, and Four Weddings, we know the protagonists are romantically inclined and their dating history has left a lot to be desired. With Jack, there’s no sense of him being interested in finding love whatsoever. I honestly thought it would turn out that he’s actually asexual, that being the reason he’s never shown an interest in his best friend Ellie (Lily James), who has been supporting his musical ambitions since secondary school.
Ellie obviously fits the bill of the "out-of-his-league love interest," and her character seems to take on some of the backstory of Four Weddings’ Fiona, though with far less edge. Yet how Jack is unable to see that she is blatantly in love with him, and has been for years, is unfathomable.
It's why his sudden decision to give up this amazing opportunity to be the voice of the Beatles' back catalog, for Ellie, is so jarring. Why he needs to choose between her and his career is even more confusing, as the pair have been working for years to get him this sort of success, and it makes little sense for this to suddenly become an issue halfway through the film. It’s the least believable thing in a movie where a 12-second power cut causes the Beatles and other pop culture properties to cease to exist.
Curtis has miscalculated his rom-com formula by not giving Jack a romantic backstory, and that has created a knock-on effect on our ability to embrace his journey and the plot conventions it travels within. How are we meant to believe Jack would give up his dreams for love if there’s no sense that he’s ever experienced or understood it? This is only exacerbated by the film’s inability to explain why the Beatles' music, especially the love songs, are so vital for the world to know. There’s no bit of Jack’s dialogue that truly expresses the importance of "Yesterday," "The Long and Winding Road," or "In My Life," but how could we expect him to if he’s never been in love?
I love the romantic comedies Richard Curtis has delivered over the last three decades, even when some have proven to be rather problematic in today’s light. For all their faults, Bridget, Charlie, Will, Tim, Dexter, and the PM, among others, have always made you believe that they believe in love. That’s what we love about the rom-com genre: the belief that we’ll all experience it no matter how awkward we are. So if you must regurgitate the same characters, at least don’t strip them of the one thing that makes us fall in love with them. Otherwise, you’re taking the rom out of rom-com.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.