You don’t have to know anything about Paul Potts, the Port Talbot cell-phone salesman whose dream of becoming an opera singer came true when he won the first season of reality series “Britain’s Got Talent,” in order to whistle the tune of “One Chance.” Slavishly modeled on “Billy Elliot,” “The Full Monty” and “Brassed Off” (to name but three), this heart-tugging Potts biopic is so stuffed with cliches about macho brutes, lovable underdogs and Cinderella twists of fate that it ends up making its real-life subject seem more generic than his wholly fictional precursors. A precision-engineered crowdpleaser if ever there was, “One Chance” (which takes its title from Potts’ debut album) should nonetheless climb the charts with older and female auds, especially in the U.K., where it opens Oct. 25. The Weinstein Co. could also have a word-of-mouth hit on its hands when it releases the pic Stateside early next year.
The “Billy Elliot” connection is rendered explicit here by the casting of Julie Walters (Billy’s dance muse) as Potts’ loving, supportive mum, who allows the opera-obsessed boy to listen to Puccini at the breakfast table despite the objections of her steelworker husband (Colm Meaney). In most other respects, however, “One Chance” resembles what “Elliot” might have looked like redrawn as an antic sitcom pilot, with a pounding, up-tempo musical score (by Theodore Shapiro), a goofy best-friend sidekick (Mackenzie Crook) and a protagonist who can’t help landing himself in the ER from a series of violent banana-peel pratfalls.
Directed with professionalism but no real personality by David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley and Me”) from a mimeographed script by Justin Zackham (“The Bucket List”), the movie skips quickly through Potts’ childhood as a bullied, overweight lad before catching us up to 2004, where the now twentysomething “Pottsy” (James Corden) works the counter at the local Carphone Warehouse — seemingly the only employment in town that doesn’t involve a blast furnace — alongside his manager and best friend Braddon (Crook). For Braddon, LAIRE-like role-playing games hold the privileged place in his life that opera does for Paul, and the agile, funny Crook (best known for originating the Rainn Wilson role in the British version of “The Office”) manages to bring some genuine feeling to a role that’s written as one-dimensional comic relief.
Paul, meanwhile, finds himself ducking through alleyways to avoid the exact same bully who’s dogged him since grammar school, nursing a relationship with an online girlfriend he can’t work up the courage to actually meet, and trying to scrape together the money to enroll at a famed Venice opera school where his idol, Luciano Pavarotti, sits on the board. With the needle on the pity meter already leaning dangerously close to the red zone, Paul dons a painted face and full clown costume to perform “Vesti La Giubba” from “Pagliacci” in a local talent contest — which he wins to the thunderous applause of the crowd (save for that one pesky bully, natch). That finally gets him to Venice, but rest assured, Potts’ tale of woe is just beginning. Still to come: bouts of stage fright and depression, a failed audition before Pavarotti himself (played by the kind of lookalike you might rent for a party), a traumatic bicycle accident and — on the eve of starring in a community opera production of “Aida” — an emergency appendectomy. You name it, “One Chance” has probably got it.
That’s not to suggest that such things didn’t really happen to Potts on his long and winding road to stardom, just that they didn’t happen in quite the antic, compressed form that they do here, which has the effect of taking the story from the realm of the unlikely into that of the completely absurd. At a certain point, one starts to doubt that Potts can so much as walk down the street without a baby grand crashing down on him. What keeps “One Chance” plugging along almost in spite of itself are the warmly engaging performances of Corden (also onscreen in Toronto hit “Can a Song Save Your Life?”) and Alexandra Roach (who played the young Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”) as the online girlfriend who eventually materializes in the flesh and becomes Potts’ tower of strength. Together, they’re an oasis of pianissimo in a movie that favors the triple forte.
Corden very convincingly lip-syncs to the real Potts’ powerful tenor on the soundtrack. Bright, widescreen lensing by Florian Ballhaus has the effect of giving everything a picture-postcard sheen, even the supposedly soul-crushing Port Talbot steelworks.