Get ready for a shock. A jaded reviewer prone to cynicism is about to recommend an earnest dock-drama about a sad sack who enters a reality-TV talent competition. To be fair, I did more than just tolerate One Chance, which is based on the true story of a timid, working-class shop clerk/amateur tenor named Paul Potts who dreams of becoming an opera singer and is determined to make it happen on the program Britain’s Got Talent. I fully enjoyed this underdog-against-the-odds movie, despite certain things about it that might ordinarily put me off.
First things first. If you have no interest in reality TV or those endlessly proliferating reality-TV contests, you’re a little like me. They might be the bane of my existence — especially because they take hours away from scripted drama and comedy. The likes of American Idol and America’s Got Talent are certainly, as Foo Fighters’ leader Dave Grohl is reputed to have said, an unfortunate way to mislead young would-be musicians into thinking that success and stardom in the entertainment industry has less to do with years of practice, performance and determination than with passing a couple of auditions and engaging in a series of sing-offs. But these shows aren’t a new phenomenon; they go back to Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, a popular series in the early days of television (and before that, on radio).
The unabashed truth is that some participants in shows of this ilk really go on to stardom, albeit manufactured. And there is a certain measure of performing skill that’s necessary if you’re going to give it your best shot. One Chance does a solid job of illustrating the dedication and devotion (and desperation) that can fuel the wannabes who enter the fray in search of fame. And the movie presents portly, genial James Corden with his first serious, high-profile feature film lead after a number of supporting roles — usually as comic relief.
Corden is no new discovery. He’s been a British television star since 2007 when he debuted as one of the principle characters in the popular situation comedy Gavin & Stacey, which he also co-created and co-wrote. Furthermore, he won the 2012 Tony Award for best actor in a play for his performance in the Broadway run of One Man, Two Guvnors. Corden’s likeable, vulnerable quality, coupled with his girth, put him in the company of such sweet-natured, plus-sized funnymen as Jackie Gleason, Chris Farley and John Candy. Those attributes also make Corden a natural to embody Paul Potts.
One Chance offers some background depicting the childhood abuse Paul absorbed from his schoolmates — bullying that is shown to have continued into his teens and beyond. This was a decent kid from a hardscrabble background who discovered the beauty of opera and dared to believe that he could learn to sing like Pavarotti. So, of course, the movie version of Paul is continually harassed by his peers and belittled by his tough-guy father — circumstances that are only partially leavened by his mother’s support. Still, Paul is determined to pursue a singing career, even if it means giving up the shaky security of a shop-assistant job and jeopardizing a possible romance, so he can travel to Italy to study the basics of opera and hone his vocal prowess.
Obviously, One Chance takes a few liberties with biographical details and dramatizes elements and situations from Paul’s life. But the essentials regarding his appearance on Britain’s Got Talent — singing in front of Simon Cowell and the other judges as a massive national audience watched — are a matter of public record, as are the results.
This sort of endeavor could be manipulative — and to be fair, One Chance can’t help but tug at your heartstrings, even when screenwriter Justin Zackham’s script is a by-the-numbers affair. It’s a tribute to director David Frankel that there’s a minimum of saccharine shoveled at the viewer. Then again, Frankel helmed 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, the delightfully snarky look at the fashion industry; thus, I went into One Chance hoping for the best, and am pleased to report that I didn’t suffer a sap attack. Additionally, the tale is sold by a cast of veteran actors including the steadfast, earthy Colm Meaney and Julie Walters as Paul’s parents, and the reliably funny Mackenzie Crook as Paul’s off-the-wall pal and co-worker. Lesser-known yet equally fine, Alexandra Roach plays Paul’s patient-to-a-fault love interest.
For all of those positives, none of it would mean much unless Corden delivered as Paul. You have to believe that this pudgy, shy regular guy has what it takes to reach for and possibly attain success in the lofty realm of classical music — and you have to care about the man. You do, thanks to Corden. Paul’s heart is the essence of One Chance, and Corden makes it beat.
One Chance opens March 14 at Landmark Theatres Embarcadero Center Cinema.