Peter Bart: ‘Yesterday’ Trying To Keep Romantic Drama Genre From Being Thing Of The Past

Writer-director Richard Curtis has reduced film audiences to tears for a generation, but this weekend when I left a screening of his new Beatles fantasy Yesterday, I noticed something was wrong: There was not a wet eye in the house. The film was entertaining, even funny here and there, but it was also a bit chilly.

I cite this not to pick on Curtis but to point up a question: Are audiences in general suffering from emotional deprivation? Critics puzzle over box office disappointments like Booksmart and Late Night or rave over TV shows like Euphoria or Gentleman Jack without noting their shared syndrome: an absence of empathy.

Curtis should understand this: He’s kept the tears flowing in Love Actually, the Bridget Jones movies, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. By contrast, the only current tear-generating movies are about canines, not humans (some exhibitors distribute towels at A Dog’s Journey). All this seems germane at a moment when movie gurus proclaim the death of that both drama and romantic comedy as theatrical genres. Indeed, the entire filmgoing experience is at death’s door, if you believe what you read.

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Here’s what they forget: Whenever we’ve hit bad patches in the past, a big hit emerges, even a new genre. Or an old one is reawakened.

A flashback: At this moment 50 years ago, box office was crashing and filmgoers en masse were staying home to watch TV — until, that is, a new movie suddenly emerged to change their minds. It was not a movie about violent crime (Bonnie & Clyde had already made its mark) nor was it a gift from hippie heaven (Easy Rider had already opened), but something even more unexpected: a classic tear-jerker that pulled in audiences by the millions and reduced audiences to a sea of sobs. And Curtis was still in nursery school in the UK.

When the movie, blatantly titled Love Story, went into production in Boston precisely 50 years ago, the Hollywood consensus was that ticket buyers would respond with a yawn. Yet news leaked that couples were holding hands during the film; more important, they were holding each other after they left the theater. “This is not a film, it’s an aphrodisiac,” noted New York Times critic Vincent Canby. Within a day of its opening, Love Story was playing to lines around the block.

The success of Love Story made folk heroes of Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal and also gave a giant boost to Paramount Pictures, which gambled on it (full disclosure: I was there at the time). It was a double gamble, in fact. I had been sufficiently impressed by the screenplay that I slipped $30,000 to its author, Erich Segal, a dorky college professor, to novelize it. The book promptly shot to No. 1 and helped ignite box office results.

At a moment when comic book heroes rule the box office, the idea of a tear-jerker becoming the No. 1 picture seems surreal. Yet over the years, films with strong emotional clout have periodically broken through — Terms of Endearment, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle or even Titanic, the ultimate date movie.

Still, the marketplace today seems oddly uninviting toward this genre. Sony’s Tom Rothman argues that, in a Netflix era, movies have to offer a strong “theatrical” component to reach the scatter-brained audience. He has a point, of course, but “theatrical” doesn’t have to translate to stunts and superheroes. It can also mean “emotion.”

If the old-fashioned date movie somehow enjoys a return, Curtis’ Yesterday may yet beat the odds and become a prime example. As directed by Danny Boyle, its protagonist is a young man who, thanks to a natural disaster, becomes the purveyor of the entire Beatles library. He not only sings “Hey Jude” (albeit as ‘Hey Dude”) but he actually owns it. Until reality, and romance, set in.

To be sure, it isn’t Love Story: Ali MacGraw doesn’t die. Ryan O’Neal doesn’t suffer. And Curtis would never write as lame a line as “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” He wouldn’t even have someone sing it.

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