REVIEW: One Day? Feels More Like 20 Years
Great romances don't always happen overnight. But we need to wait nearly 20 years for the romance in Lone Scherfig's One Day to get cooking, and for long stretches it seems as if we're watching this particular pair of nonstarters hem and haw in real time. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess play Em and Dexter, who meet not-so-cute one night in 1988, just after they've both graduated from some unnamed English university. She's gawky and wears glasses; he's upper-crusty, as we can tell from his forelock. After a mild drunken flirtation, the two toddle back to her flat with the intent of having casual sex. The first thing Em does upon entering her cramped digs it put on a Tracy Chapman record. Back in the day, we used to call that a wienie shrinker, and Dex would be inclined to agree.
Still, the two become friends and keep in touch over the years. The story is constructed so that we drop in on them every year on the same day -- July 15, which, Dex informs Em (and us) at the beginning, is St. Swithin's Day, though what that has to do with anything is barely explained. The weather on St. Swithin's Day, according to lore in the British Isles, determines what the weather will be like for the next 40 days. But apparently, it has no effect whatsoever on determining the fate of couples, and you have to sit through the interminable whole of One Day to find out what happens to this one.
And so we follow Dex and Em through the late '80s, as Dex traipses from one exotic or interesting locale to the next, bedding a new girl whenever he pleases, and Em continues to wear her glasses and many baggy outfits, silently carrying a torch for her wayward pal as she toils at a lousy London restaurant job. In the '90s, Dex becomes an obnoxious TV host and Em becomes a grade-school teacher, which only intensifies the state of her horrific sartorial choices, which at this point include droopy calico dresses, ankle socks and Doc Martens. Through it all, Dex and Em become involved with other people -- Dex snares frosty Romola Garai; Em settles for hapless comic Rafe Spall -- but still occasionally sniff around one another, just in case.
They sniff and sniff until finally -- well, never mind. If you've already read the David Nicholls novel on which One Day is based, you pretty much know the drill, and if you haven't, you have some 15 July 15ths to sit through before you find out if these two will finally get their act together. (Nicholls also adapted the screenplay.)
The core conceit is adorable enough, and here and there One Day is stupidly enjoyable. Patricia Clarkson shows up for a few sparkling scenes, until she's forced into the role of (spoiler alert!) cancer mom. And then there's always the nostalgia quotient: As Dex and Em lounge on a European beach, circa the late '80s, he reads a copy of The Face, she's got Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It's a great little detail.
But we never really know what these two see in each other. They keep claiming to be the best of friends, but there's no visible, or invisible, connection between them. We see Dex needily ringing up Em, only to get her answering machine; Em moons over Dex before becoming completely exasperated with him, although of course she still loves them. We intuit that there's some potential there only from the context, not from anything going on between the two actors, and Scherfig -- the Danish-born director who made waves with the 2009 An Education -- allows them to go through the motions rather than pushing them to dig for more.
Sturgess is reasonably believable here: Dex is, to put it simply, kind of a shit, and Sturgess is much more bearable when he's playing a self-centered jerk rather than, say, an MIT poker naif, as he did in Robert Luketic's 21. Hathaway is cast with the bum role here, and it crushes her: She spends too much of the movie blinking unconvincingly through those wire-rimmed owl glasses. Midway through the story, she discovers contact lenses and buys a new outfit, finally shedding that godforsaken Laura Ashley garb. But even that significant transformation isn't enough. One Day still means nearly two hours of watching a doe-eyed doormat pine for the man who loves her but doesn't know it yet. Long before he wakes up and smells the Earl Grey -- just in time for a jarring tearjerker of a climax -- the tea-cozy romanticism of One Day has turned into a kind of slow suffocation.