Part of me, and it is a very large part, feels extremely uncomfortable giving Yesterday a star rating implying that it's a good film, because in point of fact it is not. It is an adorable film, almost entirely on the backs of stars Himesh Patel and Lily James; it is one of the most freakishly likable films of 2019, I would even say. But it's definitely not good. Its screenplay, by Richard Curtis - who has made quite a reliable career for himself out of extremely charming romantic-ish comedies that are profoundly empty at their center, but who will always have all the credit in the world from me for co-creating the television series Blackadder and Mr. Bean - is devoid of dramatic development of any sort. There are no stakes, nothing is actually risked, nothing is learned, and there is nothing for the audience to take away as some kind of message. We cannot even say that it borrows the "stuff happens, the end" anti-dramatic structure of life itself, since there is absolutely no sense in which the events of Yesterday play out the way they would in our reality, or any reality that we might plausible suppose to exist.

Those events are pure magical realism: one night, electricity goes out across the entire surface of the planet for about 10 seconds (so we already know at least one thing about this world-not-ours: the whole globe is dark simultaneously). This 10 seconds coincides with an accident that finds Jack Malik (Patel), an aspiring singer-songwriter who just that very day decided to give up his dream of the last decade and go back to teaching, getting walloped by a bus. Days later, he wakes up, pretty worse for the wear, and finds that something about that blackout erased several things from world history; the one that he discovers first, the one that informs the rest of the story, is that in this new reality, the Beatles never existed. Jack just so happens to have a good memory for tunes and lyrics, and so he begins to pass off that band's songs as his own, reasoning that if they were successful once, they can be successful again. This is an understatement. The songs are so popular that Jack has become one of the most famous musical artists in the whole world before he's even recorded a proper album, based solely on a demo CD he started handing out at his retail job. Soon the entire planet wants to hear more masterpieces like "Yesterday" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", in an orgiastic frenzy that we might call, say, Malikmania.

The low-hanging fruit first: no, in our version of 2019, the exact songs the Beatles released, exactly as they released them, would not have the same commercial or cultural impact. For one, rock is a dead format. For another, the Beatles' songs would all sound dated and overfamiliar, because of the way that most of the subsequent history of pop music - certainly all pop music with guitars - has taken something from them (other than a cheap Oasis joke,ย Yesterday deals with this by not dealing with it). The movie sort of even gets at this; the idea, I think, is that a universe without Beatles' songs simply could not exist, sort of how our physics cannot possibly describe any state of being in which circles have four right angles. Beatlemania happens in 2019 because Beatlemania has to happen. No, this isn't satisfying at all, and it takes us directly to the next bit of low-hanging fruit: for any aspect of this film to function, either as a narrative or as an emotional experience, the viewer has to earnestly agree with the screenplay that the Beatles were, obviously and objectively, the best pop music in history. Which for this critic is a perfectly reasonably assumption to agree with, but I have enough friends who view the Beatles with anything from a shrug to open disdain (the sick bastards) that I think it's fair to say that the movie hasn't done its job in mounting an argument.

Anyway, that's all frustrating and what have you, but it's not really the problem with the film. The problem is that there's no meat on these bones. Jack gets too famous too fast, his manager and best friend Ellie (James) goes from silently pining for him to openly declaring how she now knows he can never love her the way she loves him, and... and? It's not a morality play about stealing other people's songs, though it keeps threatening to become one; the two approaches by which the film seems to be making this a possible crisis point for Jack both resolve with him being, not merely let off the hook, but valorised for stealing the Beatles' songs. The choice between Ellie or a life of rock & roll fame doesn't really land as a point of tension, because A) we already know which he's going to pick, because we are not idiot children, and B) other than having bigger and better opportunities to perform Beatles songs in front of adoring crowds, we never see what the life of a major international rock star actually does for Jack. Basically, the film is so damnably eager to please, and to praise the viewer for agreeing that the Beatles are great, it has sanded off everything even a little like a rough edge, creating a fluffy hang-out movie that actively runs in the opposite direction of engaging with the implications of its plot.

Here's the hell of it: it works anyway. It might be grotesquely eager to please, but, well, it's a pleasure: in part because the low-fi, solo guitar arrangements of the songs (which do not dig into the albums even a tiny bit; "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" is the closest thing to an obscure pick on the soundtrack) defamiliarise them enough that it's possible to hear them, not new, but at least with some of the dust knocked off. And the film's repeated comic scenario of Jack being frustrated with his listeners not realising that they're hearing some of the world's greatest masterpieces for the first time manages to freshen them as well, sort of the way that watching a familiar movie with somebody who's never seen it before can help you to see it with clearer eyes. So it is kind of a way of rediscovering the Beatles, and turns out? They did, in fact, have some pretty gosh-darn good songs.

Much more importantly, the film bets everything on Patel and James being indescribably cute together and apart, and it wins that bet. The central romantic tension maybe doesn't make sense - she's had a crush on him for ten years, she's not doing anything to hide it, and he somehow hasn't picked up on this until now - but the film manages the fine, old-fashioned movie cheat of putting two very attractive people into close proximity, and letting them banter while we daydream about them kissing. It is maybe the most reliable way for romantic films to get away with contrived plots, and Yesterday has found a pair of leads with chemistry so thick it almost leaves a trail.

Beyond that, there's something charmingly square about the humor - a lot of jokes about people who've never heard the Beatles being completely bozos who've never heard the Beatles, and thus mangling titles and lyrics - and everybody in the cast seems to enjoy being in on the joke. Even Ed Sheeran is amiable and fun, and the joke he's in on is "boy, Ed Sheeran sure is a twat, huh?" The one major exception to all of this is the film's lifeless satire of the music industry: it's a routine that has been done in similar movies for a half-century or more at this point, and Yesterday offers not one new observation. Turns out that music executives are scummy, don't care about art, and exploit their artists. The most notable thing about the leaden 30 minutes square in the middle of the film that communicate this is that they involve Kate McKinnon doing some of the worst work of her career as a venal money-worshipping vampire who has a tendency to state out loud, in painfully unfunny lines of dialogue, all of the satiric points the film is trying to make. But once you've survived that 30 minutes, the film gets to go back to being an aimless little British comic lark with delightful people playing silly characters well.

Lastly: this was directed by Danny Boyle. You'd certainly never be able to tell; the only thing that in any way resembles a stylistic flourish is that sometimes, for reasons that are not obviously motivated in the script, the performances, or anything else, he tilts the camera furiously on its axis. He does this a lot. It kind of feels like a long lost copy of Carry On the Third Man, or something. Anyway, the direction is undistinguished, except when it is bad - but that's not fair. He gets some very lovely work out of his stars, and that's part of directing, too. It's just not the part I expect when I head into a Danny Boyle picture. But my point was, he's a major filmmaker, and I'd feel odd not naming him even once, even though this is emphatically not a major work.