With its near-unfaltering winsomeness, One Chance basically adds up to a continuous, feature-length shock to the system. Viewers should be fully immune to this movie’s charms, which are lifted from shopworn narratives of the big and small screens. As shown, the story of zero-to-hero opera singer Paul Potts (James Corden) is most noticeably a virtual Xerox of that of Billy Elliot, who also pursued the arts in a kitchen-sink town under the disapproving gaze of a blue-collar dad (played here by Colm Meaney). The actual Potts, who won the first series of Britain’s Got Talent in 2007, and whose memoir inspired the movie, has an arc that any TV watcher would recognize faster than you could say “Susan Boyle”: An “unlikely” contestant steps onto a stage, an astonishing voice comes out of an utterly un-modelesque body, and a handful of judges are moved to tears, mostly because they’ve been forced to check their prejudices.
And yet, even with all these familiar elements comprising One Chance’s plot, director David Frankel manages to keep wonder aloft and cynicism at bay, using keenly disarming schmaltz and humor to put moviegoers in the seats of those “seen-it-all” judges. A sizable amount of this coup can be credited to the performances Frankel draws from Corden and Alexandra Roach, who, as Potts’s firm but fair other half, Julz, uses star-making zeal to eclipse every drawback of her stereotypical, little-woman role. But it can also be traced to a line delivered by Luciano Pavorotti (Stanley Townsend), for whom Potts auditions while training in Venice, well before finding his voice on national television. “You need to steal the heart of an audience,” Pavorotti says, “and to do that, you need the nerves a thief.” To call Frankel a nervy filmmaker would be more than a stretch, but as a storyteller, he has an eye for what to steal and how to tweak it, and in films like this and The Devil Wears Prada, he wins the audience as a result.
This isn’t easy given what’s provided in Justin Zackham’s script, which, from Potts’s early days of childhood bullying to the plethora of health problems that systematically threaten to derail his dream, is tediously beholden to Murphy’s Law. But Frankel and his cast (which also includes Julie Walters and Mackenzie Crook) are always providing adequate diversions, intercepting potential eye-rolls with persistent genuineness, such as when Potts and Julz milk the joke that their online dating personas are Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz. It’s all the more bewildering that this happens within a Simon Cowell-produced, Harvey Weinstein-backed product, which was no doubt test-screened to death and, at this point, has been delayed more times than Azealia Banks’s debut studio album. In One Chance, like Prada before it, Frankel crams his story with predictable developments, yet he matches his subject in spirit, pushing something into the spotlight that, however unlikely, elicits irresistible glee.