Talking Movies

June 30, 2019

Notes on Yesterday

Richard Curtis’ Beatles rom-com Yesterday was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Danny Boyle may be the director but this is a Richard Curtis film, and it would be much better if it weren’t. A world in which The Beatles have been erased from existence save for the memory of one struggling musician is a high concept comedy, but Curtis insists on making it a ho-hum rom-com. Kevin Willmott’s CSA showed that you have to rein in the butterfly effect for alternate history because everything would become unfamiliar. Would the Beach Boys be as important without Pet Sounds, their riposte to the Beatles? Curtis displays no such interest, save an Oasis joke, in exploring the butterfly effect of his own bloody high concept. Kate McKinnon is the most reliably comic element of this film, and she is lip-smackingly playing a caricature record executive – Hunter S Thompson’s famous jibe mixed with notes of her SNL Hillary Clinton. But then all the characters in this film are caricatures. This poses a problem when Curtis wants you to care about the romance as if it involved characters with some humanity.

The romance is already scuppered by Jack (Himesh Patel) and Elly (Lily James) patently having the chemistry of hopeless dreamer and dutiful girlfriend in the opening scenes, until it’s bafflingly revealed they’re just friends. They do not hold themselves as fast platonic friends like Holmes and Watson in Elementary. When she complains she always wanted more, and Curtis writes improbable scenes doggedly making this fetch happen he, like Nick Hornby in Juliet, Naked, defies the felt experience of human nature. But this aggravating drive to the grand romantic gesture reaches a new low for Curtis. GK Chesterton once quipped that art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere. I draw the line at Curtis; in the vein of his Doctor Who episode in which he shamefully zipped Van Gogh to the future to hear Bill Nighy valorise him then returned him to the past to kill himself to general hand-wringing; resurrecting the murdered John Lennon as septuagenarian sage giving Jack a pep talk to make the finale’s grand romantic gesture. No… No. No. No!

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July 22, 2015

The Legend of Barney Thomson

Robert Carlyle makes his directorial debut as a boring Scottish barber who a couple of unfortunate accidents render prime suspect in a serial killer manhunt.

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Barney Thomson (Robert Carlyle) is, by his own narration, a boring man. So boring in fact that he’s about to be fired by Wullie (Stephen McCole) because nobody wants to get their hair cut by a man without any chat. Barney’s appeal to Wally’s father James (James Cosmo) hits the same brick wall – Barney’s personality, or lack thereof; “Standing over the customers like a haunted tree…” And then Barney has an unfortunate workplace accident, or two. Which happen to coincide with DI Holdall (Ray Winstone) and his sidekick MacPherson (Kevin Guthrie) getting increasingly desperate to find a serial killer before their Chief McManaman (Tom Courtenay) hands the case over to strident Robertson (Ashley Jensen). And when Barney’s formidable mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson) helpfully steps in, in her own demented manner, Barney finds himself being liked for a dismembering homicidal maniac.

The Legend of Barney Thomson begins promisingly. There are choice insults. A panicked Winstone flourishes a new lead to the press, then retreats to the toilets where MacPherson finds him slumped on the floor – “I lied. That’s why I’m in the shape of a frog.” But the insults don’t match those in Armando Iannucci’s VEEP; a show aware that verbal cruelty is enjoyable for about 25 minutes, but then becomes exhausting. The shrill shouting matches between Jensen and Winston are deeply unfunny, never seem particularly motivated, and, even for a black comedy, just bespeak superficial characterisation. Brian Pettifer’s extremely creepy turn as Barney’s ‘friend’ Charlie is equally bedevilled by totally random character beats, while Emma Thompson’s one-note turn as a hard-living 70-something Glaswegian is a piece of stunt casting amusing for as long as you find her aging-up inherently funny.

It feels like there’s a different, better comedy within this movie attempting to escape; the desperation of DI Holdall to escape the “vomit-lashed sh**hole” that his Scottish wife has connivingly dragged him to, a despair which informs his phone-call to a bookie: “Can you say that again, in English? Because I didn’t get a word you just said. Yes, I know you’re Scottish. Yes, I’m aware that I am up here.” Instead the focus is on Barney, played by Carlyle, via Jeremy Davies, with lots of nervous twitches. The cast gamely play the machinations of Barney, Cemolina, and Holdall, and there are amusing moments but it’s hard to care about such half-written characters. “This is f****** ridiculous” says Holdall when the plot reaches its final ridiculous twist, and his character, tiring of the film, is verbalising what the audience has already felt for some time.

The Legend of Barney Thomson is only 95 minutes long, and yet rarely can a film have worn out its welcome quite so fast.

2/5

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