Benjamin (Simon Amstell, 2018)
Yesterday (Danny Boyle, 2019)
I’d not knowingly come across Joel Fry before, but here he is, playing essentially the same role of kooky and tactless best friend in two romcoms.
Back in the late 1970s, Brian Henderson suggested that the romcom was no longer possible – two broad schools of the genre divide into two questions. Why haven’t we fucked?
Why did we stop fucking?
By the 1970s the various bars to fucking – religious morality, age, pre-existing relationships, class, ethnicity, location and so on – seemed to have faded and so the, ahem, climax of the romcom (two people fucking) had to have a more complicated reason to be deferred.
Of course, we had a bit of a moral backlash, and the romcom became conservative in a way it hadn’t been between the 1930s and the 1960s. Curiously, there was a gradual shift from fucking – which might now take place in the middle of the film – to Why aren’t we soulmates? and Are we still soulmates?
So two examples of the form, both modern in a looking back kind of way, both British, both with their moments of self-indulgence.
Benjamin is the better of the two, which taps into the taboo of the male gay romcom (of which Love, Simon is another recent example). It’s a semi-autobiographical work, with self-destructive, angst-ridden, narcissistic, perfectionist film maker Benjamin (Colin Morgan) trying to make work that is successful and meaningful, who meets the younger French singer-guitarist Noah (Phenix Brossard) – age barrier, cultural barrier. The film wrong-foots us by including Benjamin’s work (I noted the odd aspect ratio) in perhaps a nod to Almodovar, and slots in Kermode and Mayo as reviewers of the work – which presumably is a barrier to a bad review on their radio programme (I haven’t checked). Writer-director Amstell’s work on Popworld allows him to muse on fickle celebrity and publicity. In the meantime, he worries away at traditional notions of sexuality and desire, whilst Morgan (who has come a long way since Morgan) avoids the pitfalls of too close an imitation of early Woody Allen and Amstell’s tics.
Yesterday presumably had a bigger budget and Boyle’s work is almost always interesting, and his previous romcom, A Life Less Ordinary, is underrated. But of course, the script is by Richard Curtis, who borrowed the idea from Jack Barth and Mackenzie Crook. What if everyone in the world had forgotten the Beatles and you were a struggling musician who was the only person to remember the songs and the chords? Well, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is the guitarist and it turns out he becomes popular very quickly, is discovered by Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran) and signed up to an American label for megabucks and stadium concerts.
Well, the Beatles themselves didn’t exactly do it that way, honing their skills in clubs first in Liverpool and then Germany. It took a while before they could crack America. It’s interesting how nobody, even Jack, can explain the songs, or why rewriting “Hey Jude” as “Hey Dude” is wrong. If this were proper sf, there’d be consequences. No Beatles, then no Swinging Sixties? Did they make The Rolling Stones possible and did they hold back Gerry and the Pacemakers? But the hinge point doesn’t come with John Lennon in the early 1960s – a certain caffeine-based soda is unknown, as is a certain intoxicating leaf. Raleigh didn’t bring it back?
But Curtis doesn’t care about this, as he reassembles the formula he has honed since Four Weddings and a Funeral: there is Ellie Appleton (Lily James), Jack’s lifelong friend and first manager, and she has been holding a candle for him for a decade. He, awkwardly, hadn’t realised. There’s a certain amount of distraction to be had from seeing how the archetypes of Notting Hill and Love, Actually are dusted off and which actor would have played the role twenty years ago. Curtis, or perhaps Roger Michell, had imagined an ethnically cleansed Notting Hill, but Malick is of Indian descent with Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal from Goodness Gracious Me playing his parents off the peg from a 1980s sitcom. It’s fun enough, but the sort of role they sent up twenty years ago. Curtis has no interest in thinking it through – there’s a cringe worthy cameo of James Corden that leaves things unresolved (perhaps it was a nightmare?) and an uncanny encounter in a cottage on a beach that almost earns its place but lacks full emotional impact (although that actor in the role has aged a lot, presumably through makeup).
Aside from the interracial element, the film is otherwise old school, despite its mobile phones and Googles. Malik’s marketers seem to think him too ugly to be a star (and yet frankly he’s not an eyesore) and morally speaking honesty will set you free and get you the girl. The answer to Why haven’t we fucked? turns out to be I’m only ever good at cover versions and now I’m a plagiarist. Boyle is never one for a straight forward narration, and kudos to his cinematographer Christopher Ross and editor Jon Harris. It’s a disposable romp, in a universe where Annie Hall was not made.