For the true story of Paul Potts, the down-on-his-luck Welsh cellphone store clerk with dreams of becoming an opera star, you don’t expect much in the way of nuance. True to form, the folks at Weinstein — who’ve created a decent-sized niche line of feel-good stories with light quirk, preferably from the United Kingdom — and David Franckel, director of well-acted fluff both tolerable (The Devil Wears Prada) and not (Hope Springs) leave the nuance behind and go for broke on the cute, lightly sprinkled with comedy. The formula, part romantic comedy and part Billy Elliot, comes close to working, but collapses at the conclusion like a poorly-made cake. That’s what happens when your big finale involves Simon Cowell.
There’s not much to One Chance at first, but that hardly matters, as Potts is being played by the adroit, masterful James Corden, one of those comic geniuses just waiting for his big breakout. A clever opening sequence shows the shy Potts being chased by same the neighborhood bullies over the years, everybody wearing the same outfits and running down the same streets. In the most recent beating, Potts ends up with a bloodied mouth, cracked tooth, and another reason not to want to leave his parents’ home, where he’s still living in his twenties. He works at a cellphone store in his modest Welsh coastal industrial town and has never had a girlfriend. The only thing that keeps Potts going though what he calls “the opera of my life” is his overwhelming love for the music and the possibility of attending a voice training school in Venice. Waiting for him if he fails is the volcanic heat and ash of the town’s Moloch-like iron foundry where his chief bully and also grousing, disappointed father (Colm Meaney) work.
This is less a movie than a collection of roadblocks interrupted by low-key workaday comedy interludes. Corden’s gift for screwball is mostly tamped down here, as he adopts a scampering, turtle-shell persona perfectly suited for a man with a gorgeous voice but the frightened spirit of a bullied child. Since comedies of this sort are in large part about seeing heroes with negligible confidence getting bucked up intentionally by friends and unintentionally by enemies, One Chance gives Potts several of both. Solidly in his corner are his too-good-to-be-true girlfriend met over the Internet (Alexandra Roach, wonderfully devil-may-care) and mother (Julie Walters), who thinks a world that doesn’t appreciate her son can just go to hell. For backup support there’s the British Office’s Mackenzie Crook in the Rhys Ifans role as Potts’ just-odd-enough best friend.
Potts’ story sends him up the ladder of success numerous times (new girlfriend, winning a local talent show) only to see him repeatedly knocked down (more bullying, flubbing an audition in front of Pavarotti, an ill-timed appendectomy). Since Corden is so instantly likeable, and Potts’ dream is so easily relatable, this lightly frothed concoction works for a time. But there’s too little of a story here for it to cohere. By the time that we see Potts signing up for Britain’s Got Talent, the whole enterprise has taken on so much inevitability that it barely pulls together a perfunctory conclusion. After all, they don’t make movies that are “based on a true story” when they’re about a sweet-natured guy who fought the odds only to ultimately fail at achieving his one true desire.