Like last year’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, One Day is an unobtrusively tender romance with hazy lighting, a toothy cast and an untraditional narrative device. Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, this Anne Hathaway vehicle, directed by An Education helmer Lone Scherfig, was rushed directly from the bookshelf to theaters. And like The Time Traveler’s Wife, One Day is an empty, episodic, emotionally flat wannabe weeper that telegraphs its knockout punch from a mile away.
That isn’t necessarily a critique of the literary works – I loved Audrey Niffenegger’s novel and I haven’t read One Day’s source material. But One Day, the film, is especially disappointing considering the screenplay is credited solely to the original author, David Nicholls. That’s a rare and blessed thing to happen to a studio adaptation – usually the assignment would be handed off to Akiva Goldsman or Jeremy Leven or another go-to guy immediately after the film rights were bought – and Scherfig’s involvement only makes it look sweeter on paper. What results, however, is borderline insulting.
The film begins with a 1988 college graduation in England. Two graduates, Emma (Hathaway, whose clearly vocal-coached mouth forms the most unnatural-looking words) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) hook up – well, almost – and commit to at least seeing each other every July 15th.
From there, we check in on them checking in on each other every couple of years through visits that don’t come off as obligatory so much as smiley and thoughtless. One of the first visits involves a magic-hour skinny- dipping session, and here the chemistry between the leads somewhat comes together. Dexter is a millionaire playboy silver-spooner, and we come to expect this kind of thing – exotic locales, fast cars and other flights of fancy – as much as Emma desperately needs it. (In the first of many humiliations heaped upon her, she waitresses at a crummy Tex-Mex joint post-university.)
Then the unthinkable happens: Dexter becomes boring. Oh, his life is the stuff twenty-somethings dreams about, to be sure: He’s an MTV-esque party host who bides his time between meetups doing coke, bedding countless model types, ignoring his cancer-coughing mother (Patricia Clarkson) and, eventually, tuning Emma out, all while whining that nobody takes him seriously. Oh, and lest you miss a title card stating the year in which any particular scene takes place – the film hopscotches over the course of about 20 years, but only passingly refers to the much more interesting bits in between – a timely pop song will help you out.
One Day is an equal-opportunity fatalist, too. Emma settles down with a dorky former classmate who clearly loves her more than she loves him, frumps it hard as a put-upon teacher and seems to exist solely to chastise Dexter for his behavior once a year. Because what audiences really want out of a romantic tragedy is not steamy sex or rain-soaked confessions or dashes to the airport; we’d rather see the woman take the place of the guy’s mother. That’s hot.
The last act is spent largely on mutual regret, as Dexter finally sees Emma as a potential love interest, but only after he’s burned through all the coke and money, has accumulated mountains of baggage and is so burned out and lonely that he looks as if he’s either going to kiss her or tell her the good word about Jesus. Maybe they live happily ever after, but if they do, you can be sure that this film would only time travel to the good stuff: dying of old age.