This is such a good idea for an exploration of the power of great songs to bring joy and pleasure and to make a better world (or the way the absence of such works of art might diminish our world), as well as offering some insight into the ethics of appropriation (more popularly known by the weasel word, homage) involved in claiming originality off the back of someone else’s work. It’s disappointing, then, that the potential for this isn’t embraced as fully as it might be and that, instead, it spends much of its time focused on a fairly run-of-the-mill romantic comedy storyline (Ellie, of course, has always been in love with Jack, but Jack seems to be oblivious to her affections – why, she wonders, did she end up in the ‘friend’ column instead of the ‘And I love Her’ column?). If anyone was going to pull off a story that could do justice to both these ideas, it should be Richard Curtis who is well known for his gifts in crafting great romantic comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually) and his forays into high concept science-fiction/fantasy devices (About Time) but here it feels like he and director Danny Boyle haven’t quite settled on what the film’s about.
It’s a strength of the story that they make no attempt to explain the blackout or how and why it resulted in the random disappearance of an odd collection of things in the world. Nor do they get bogged down in any attempt the reveal why Jack is immune to the thing that the rest of the world has succumbed to. This is just the way of the new world, and I go along with that wholeheartedly. What I find perplexing though is that the things that seem to have disappeared from the world have no real connection. They’re not all things, like the Beatles that we’d grieve for if we knew we’d lost them. Many of the things that are gone (and I don’t want to give away what they are, because there are some good jokes associated them) are things that we would probably generally agree the world is better without. And just when the story seems like it might be about to take a radical turn that could crack open its unexamined potential, we get the rug pulled out from under our feet with the worst of cop-outs… a Dorothy, wake up! moment where a great, unexpected development turns out to just be a dream. Here and in most of the rest of the film, the opportunity to use its sci-fi-fantasy device as a way of asking ourselves whether we’re consciously or unconsciously allowing or even enabling a world where we’re giving up the best of our creativity and originality, is largely missed.
In its place, is the other side of the story; a pale reflection of a romantic comedy that often feels like it’s recycling some of the best bits from Curtis’ great RomComs. For instance, as funny as he is, Jack’s hopeless friend and clumsy roadie Rocky (Joel Fry) is pretty much a lesser version of Spike (Rhys Ifans) from Notting Hill, complete with moments of weirdly wise insight. Likewise, there’s a Notting Hill style frantic dash through traffic (albeit on foot instead of in a car) when Jack realises that he’s let Ellie slip through his fingers and must get to her before her train leaves for London. None of these moments, of themselves, are bad… in fact, many of them are sweet and quite funny… but collectively it feels like we’ve seen it all before and that’s a great shame when these moments steal so much oxygen from the truly original concept that should be at the heart of the film.
Much of the rest of the cast provide solid support to the story. Kate McKinnon puts in a manic turn as Ed Sheeran’s Manager who takes over Jack’s career with a vengeance and Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Jack’s semi-supportive parents give funny but familiar performances that could be lifted straight out of The Kumars at No. 42. The real surprise is Ed Sheeran who’s terrific in a self- deprecating and very meta portrayal of himself (having Shape of You as his ring tone is possibly the funniest moment in the film). And, on the upside, there are plenty of great Beatles songs to tap along to and Patel offers sweet if unremarkable renditions of them.
But just when I was ready to accept that my excited anticipations for this film were not going to be met, it almost redeems itself with a lovely, unexpected and even moving scene near the end that reframes the more interesting elements of the story in a way that could have elevated it into something more profound and more culturally meaningful. But that moment is short lived and the predictable ending is given over to the romantic comedy rather than to the deeper and more philosophical questions that could have been dealt with in its final moments.