Silver Screen: One Day **
The gimmick that drives the romance One Day, the adaptation of the novel of the same name by David Nicholls, isn't bad. On a July 15 in the late 1980s, underconfident wannabe writer Emma (Anne Hathaway) nearly consummates her crush on the brash, allegedly dashing Dexter (Jim Sturgess, not all that dashing), but instead they wind up spending the night cuddling and talking, establishing a friendship. The remainder of the film charts the course of their relationship by focusing on every July 15 for the next nineteen years.
The coming July 15s see the two taking strikingly dissimilar paths. Emma flounders after graduating and winds up spending several unproductive years hustling margaritas and burritos at a chintzy Mexican restaurant, while Dexter finds early, shallow success as the host of a series of vapid British chat shows. Throughout it all, they remain friends, supporting one another as best they can through a series of challenges: her stalled career and increasingly desperate home life, his burgeoning drug habit and cancer-stricken mother (Patricia Clarkson, given too little screentime to have much effect).
The trouble is, Nicholls, adapting his own work, lacks confidence in both the soundness of the central gimmick as well as his audience. The core conceit is an interesting one that potentially lets a filmmaker-- in this case, An Education director Lone Scherfig-- tell a kind of impressionistic story through a series of interrelated vignettes. But Nicholls cheats, big time, and so just about every significant event of Emma and Dexter's lives winds up taking place on that fateful date of July 15: He gets fired, she meets a new guy, he and Emma reconnect after a long absence, and on and on, until the shoddy climax on one of the final July 15s, in which the movie sags into dreary pathos for no better reason than a lack of dramatic momentum.
How interesting might it have been if Nicholls and Scherfig trusted both themselves and their audience enough to allow some of those July 15s to play out at a slower pace, with the plot developments of the past year subtly implied rather than dramatically demonstrated?
Unfortunately, One Day isn't much for subtleties. Whereas Scherfig's last film, the excellent, Academy Award-nominated An Education, was willing to let viewers make up their own minds about the moral turpitude of its subjects, One Day is the kind of film that tries to strongarm allegiances to one set of characters by rendering the remaining ones cartoonishly obnoxious. When Emma and Dexter both entangle themselves with new lovers, the romantic rivals are instantly signaled to be utterly unsuitable partners. His lady is a cold, conniving model who ignores their child, while her new boyfriend is portrayed as the most unlikable schlub of all time, a desperately unfunny failing standup comedian sporting clunky glasses and a mop of frizzy hair, not to mention bad hygiene, an armload of graphic novels, and all the sex appeal of a protracted dental procedure.
It doesn't really help that neither Emma nor Dexter are particularly charming themselves. Hathaway is an undeniable beauty, but there's a certain cloying desperation behind her wide, captivating eyes-- it came notably bubbling to the surface when she hosted the Oscars last year-- that's reminiscent of the second-most popular girl in high school doing her damnedest to make sure she's in the most yearbook photos. Her Emma is frustratingly mopey and unassertive, and there's never really a moment where the character's potential credibility as a writer is evident. (We never see her doing anything like reading or writing.) Sturgess, meanwhile, mistakes smarm for charm and is disastrously unlikable as a supposedly smooth operator whose phoniness is too readily apparent, and whose implied inner depths are never revealed.
The unforgivably maudlin ending is clumsily foreshadowed and crushingly dull. Had Scherfig and Nicholls been able to cultivate much in the way of sympathy for either of the leads, it might have at least been maddeningly frustrating instead of the final insult in a dreary slog.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.