The YouTube video of Paul Potts—a mobile phone salesman from South Wales, singing “Nessun Dorma” on Britain’s Got Talent—has been viewed over 128,000,000 times. A chubby and unassuming man who takes the stage with the focus of someone who is desperately trying to forget where he is, Potts opens his mouth—revealing a nattered mess of teeth that might as well be the curtains on the Titanic—and warbles a rendition of Puccini’s aria so gorgeous it could rival that of a seasoned professional. When he begins to sing, notoriously blithe judge Simon Cowell does an amazing double take so dramatic you can practically see the cartoon cash signs slotting into his eyes. Amanda Holden, one of the other judges, fights off tears as she describes Potts as, “A little lump of coal that is going to turn into a diamond.” She calls him a “little lump of coal” on national television, and the audience roars with approval. This is the best moment of Potts’ life. And why shouldn’t it be?
The clip is almost impossible to watch (or even re-watch) without feeling a warm shiver of emotion; it’s rare to see an “unremarkable” life be saved from the oblivion of a steady job and a happy marriage in the blink of a moment. The audience senses that Potts is being truly heard for the very first time, but the remarks of the preying celebrity judges make it similarly clear that, for them, the transformed nobody on trial is only special because he’s the moral of the self-congratulating story their show exists to tell.
One Chance, a feel-good biopic about Potts’ life that represents its subject as an overnight success 37 years in the making, is presented with the unenviable task of negotiating between those two perspectives. The film’s solution is essentially to have it both ways. Working from a script by The Bucket List and The Big Wedding screenwriter Justin Zackham (please keep reading), One Chance immediately concedes to the cynical notion that its audience will only watch Potts as a bullied lad who lives with his parents because they know that he comes out on top. It’s a film that swears by the golden formula of crowd-pleasing sentimentality: Let viewers laugh at the struggles and share in the triumphs.
Produced by Cowell himself, One Chance is more or less the Rudy of movies about opera singers. Set in the blue-collar factory town of Port Talbot, Wales, the film begins with young Potts being relentlessly bullied as his adult counterpart begins to narrate: “I was born with a big voice.” When the story abruptly cuts to Potts as a grown man, he’s embodied by the charismatic actor James Corden, who fills out the role with nonthreatening warmth. (His compulsively watchable Potts is less of a person than the world’s most unfortunate saint). Potts’ gruff and hyper-masculine father, almost inevitably played by Colm Meaney, doesn’t approve of his son’s ambition to be a singer. As the film mercilessly contorts Potts’ life into the stuff of a misshapen romantic comedy, all of the usual archetypes are squeezed in, including a wacky alcoholic best friend (Mackenzie Crook) and a shy, open-hearted girlfriend (Alexandra Roach as Julz, the woman who would eventually become Potts’ wife). The first third of the film chronicles their awkward flirtations, while the rest follows the wild ups and downs of his attempts to follow his dreams of being an opera star.
Blandly directed by The Devil Wears Prada-helmed David Frankel, One Chance lacks the middlebrow polish that has made his films such reliably re-watchable cable-TV fodder. Perhaps it’s a testament to Potts’ incredible story that the fluffy film that Frankel made from it feels so unreal. But as soon as the movie sends him to an opera academy in Venice, inventing a second love interest and a mortifying audition scene in front of Luciano Pavarotti, Frankel can’t help but to try and introduce his familiar gloss. In the process, he strips Potts’ saga of the workaday charm that made it so touching in the first place. The film ultimately feels like little more than a 104-minute version of the backstory clip package that might air before a key contestant auditions on American Idol.