Treacly, oftentimes predictable, lacking real chemistry and sporting a narrative conceit that never really serves the movie well, if you thought the only thing missing from movies based on Nicholas Sparks novels was questionably convincing English accents, “One Day” may be the movie for you. While there’s something to be said for any film that takes relationships between young adults even semi-seriously, Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess discover plenty of melodrama in their characters’ two-decade, on-off romance, but they unfortunately fail to fill out the other 364 days of those years with much depth.
Hathaway (“Love and Other Drugs”) and Sturgess (“The Way Back”) play Emma and Dexter, a pair of university graduates who unsuccessfully hook up on the first night they meet, and then spend the next 20 years deciding whether they want to be friends or lovers. The true-blue Emma struggles to find a niche for herself, first working at a fairly terrible Tex-Mex restaurant and then becoming an elementary school teacher. The shallow and infantile skirt-chasing Dexter peaks early as a television host who enjoys the spoils of fame but eventually becomes obsolete after a lady friend steals the spotlight from him. In the meantime, the two “lost souls” shuffle through failed relationships with others, make mistakes big and small, and fall in and out of touch with each other over the years before being forced to confront the fact that they are the only true constants in each others' lives. They’re like magnets slowly being pulled towards one another. Convenient, considering throughout most of the picture, you’re wondering why these two people would ever be together.
If there’s one thing that’s most important in stories about people finding their soul mates, it’s that the two souls in question have to feel like they were absolutely meant to be together. As instantly likable as Emma is as a character, and how obviously devoted she is to Dexter, he’s never up to the task of proving he’s worth her adulation. Whether this is a deficiency of the writing or acting is unclear, but unfortunately, “familiarity” is not a convincing enough quality for these two characters to share in order to prove to us that each of them is indeed the love of the their life. And because the picture never crackles alive with real romantic energy, oftentimes we’re left with an experience that sleepwalks through the motions. Worse yet, the film devotes literal years of Emma’s life to not-so-secretly pining for Dexter while he floats around like a romantic dilettante, temporarily showering her with affection before finding someone else of lesser substance (or in cinematic terms, greater "wrongness") to distract himself from their supposedly obvious chemistry. For much of the film, his character is a selfish jerk and the story does itself a disservice by suggesting this strong, but non-confident female character would long for such a tool. By the time the unlikable Dexter becomes a genuine person one logically assumes it would be far too late for him to pick up with Emma years later.
Severely problematic is the inherent limitations of the rather contrived “One Day” concept which would be better served in a nonfiction film where audiences could literally watch two people grow up, change and influence one another. But because the story focuses on the same day every year, much of each new reunion is devoted to Dexter and Emma describing their travails in between, which probably reads fine in novel form, but on film feels not only excessively expository, but serves to make their connection and relationship seem all the more superficial (a key moment of sexual reciprocation – finally after 20 years!– bafflingly occurs off screen and is told to us through dialogue).
Of course, without that context their maturation as individuals and as a couple becomes largely one-dimensional and meaningless. Surely there could have been a better way for director Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) to cue audiences nonverbally or contextually to alert them to the changes in their lives. Especially since as would-be best friends, they presumably would already be long-since familiar with the little events they experience, much less big ones like, say, when Emma writes a successful children’s book. Sure, this conceit comes directly from the novel which it’s adapted from, but slavishly adhering to the book does little to reinforce the otherwise absent chemistry.
Perhaps more importantly, however, Hathaway and Sturgess are simply not right for what their roles require and therefore never genuinely click or provide any convincing level of romantic sparks or believable kismet. Sturgess is a perfectly beautiful specimen, the sort of guy that, sure, plenty of schoolgirls would find themselves pining for. But Dexter is either a smart guy who chooses to be dumb or a sensitive guy who tried to play tough (or both), and as an actor, he lacks the nuance required to communicate the character’s hidden substance – which, after even five years makes Emma look a little bit pathetic. Hathaway, on the other hand, is no average looker herself, but she’s supposed to play one in the film, a neurotic, gangly twentysomething struggling to garner the attention of someone better than her buffoonish co-worker. If one needs evidence that being a movie star does no favors for actors who take their craft seriously, consider this Exhibit A: even with a very uneven English accent and her sumptuous beauty supposedly hidden beneath unflattering period attire, Hathaway cannot make us forget that she’s Anne Hathaway.
While shot well by DoP Benoît Delhomme, giving England’s dour gray skies a breather, the music to “One Day” on the other hand is poorly handled. Rachel Portman’s plaintive score is pretty and lugubrious, but largely acts as a lubricant for scenes that are emotionally not quite there. The soundtrack is much worse, with loud, jarring, dated and contrived pop songs (“Hey, that’s Fatboy Slim – it MUST be 1998!”) hamfisted in at the beginning of scenes to buttress transitions and remind the audience where we are (as if the the titles that spell it out each time aren’t enough).
The ultimate irony is that this film is clearly meant to be a serious counterpart to the pop sensibilities of mainstream comedies like “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached,” and yet in the end it feels exactly like them; even with a veneer of melancholy hanging over its epic story (no spoiler, but suffice it to say no filmmaker opens her film with a flash-forward of a person riding a bike on a busy street for no reason), there’s a conspicuous, dare we say predictable inevitability hanging over every long-distance conversation or disagreement that they will work it out, and by God, they will end up together. And in that sense, it’s as much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy as any of its more conventional counterparts, albeit one burdened by the self-importance of telling the story about a “real” relationship. “One Day” would have worked better with one fewer conceits and two better characters. [C-] -- Todd Gilchrist