Twice Upon a Yesterday seems almost too geared for the Sliding Doors crowd. Because this romantic fable relies on the same kind of conceptual sleight of hand as that recent Brit hit (which owed a giant debt of its own to Groundhog Day), its sense of originality and wit is greatly diminished. Although it contains a couple of very different -- and clever -- plot twists, Twice Upon a Yesterday resembles its predecessor in too many ways. Set in contemporary London, it features a lovelorn Scotsman with an endearing brogue and revolves around a what-if? scenario, as in: What if events had gone in a different direction?
Instead of two versions of the present running side by side, the new film gives its protagonist the chance to relive -- and thus change -- the past. Disheveled, unemployed actor Vic (Douglas Henshall of Angels and Insects) and hospital psychologist-in-training Sylvia (Lena Headey of Mrs. Dalloway and TV's Merlin) have arrived at the point in their long-standing relationship at which she wants more commitment and he wants less...a lot less. Only after obtaining his freedom does Vic realize that he truly loves Sylvia. By then, of course, it's too late; she is about to marry David (Mark Strong), a yoga enthusiast she met at a health club. A distraught Vic gets drunk and falls into the hands of two magical garbage collectors who transport him back in time to the morning of the breakup. With 20-20 hindsight, Vic doesn't make the same mistake again. But will the course of true love run any more smoothly the second time around?
Parts of this picture are highly enjoyable, although, as with Sliding Doors, one has to be something of a romantic to get caught up in it (unlike Groundhog Day, which had such charm and humor that it appealed to cynics as well as to romantics). The film's weakness lies partly with the script, which makes Sylvia less sympathetic as the story progresses, but also with the characters -- or perhaps it's the actors -- who prove only intermittently engaging. This is especially true of Henshall, who, although he is playing a very different personality type, pales in comparison to the irresistible John Hannah of Sliding Doors.
Shot in England with a predominantly British cast (exceptions include Elizabeth McGovern and Spanish actress Penelope Cruz), the film was actually written, directed, and produced by Spaniards. Maria Ripoll, who studied directing at the prestigious American Film Institute and is a highly regarded television director in her own country, makes her feature debut with Twice Upon a Yesterday and shows a sure hand with both the surrealistic aspects of the story (most notably, the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza-inspired trashmen and their fantastical garbage dump) and the more mundane romantic developments.
The junkyard sequence is, without question, the most bewitching in the film. The garbagemen -- 16th-century Spanish figures living in modern-day London -- have transformed their workplace into a whimsical playground of discarded refrigerators and dishwashers. The sense of wonder and magic that infuses this scene isn't replicated anywhere else; then again, Spanish novelist-songwriter Rafa Russo, making his debut as a screenwriter, clearly wasn't trying to fashion another Like Water for Chocolate. That's a pity, as the scene casts a spell that the rest of the film fails to match.
While not living up to its similarly themed predecessors, Twice Upon a Yesterday is an acceptable addition to the canon of romantic comedies and may prove just the ticket for viewers hungry for light fare with a romantic bent. And who among us hasn't wished we could travel back in time and change the past?
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