Review: 'One Day' offers phony romance, strands Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess
In the parlance of today's pop culture, Team Hathaway. Totally.
Anne Hathaway is what the studio system used to produce routinely. She's got good comedy chops, she's absolutely got dramatic chops, she's physically substantial enough to pull off action, and she's been unafraid of nudity since day one. She has a strong female appeal, and she's anchored some big hits like "The Princess Diaries" and "The Devil Wears Prada," movies that play right down the middle to the romantic comedy market. She's also made a lot of unpredictable choices, and she's taken risks, and she's pushed herself onscreen. She gets to go further than a lot of the classic-era movie stars did. I have no doubt she would have been doing big studio musicals and comedies and dramatic Oscar bait routinely in the '40s or the '50s, but she's got a brittle thing about her, something that she likes to play, that makes her interesting, unafraid to be disliked.
That's something I admire in a performer. There are movie stars who have absolutely crippled good screenplays or good movies because they insisted on changes out of fear that their character will be disliked, but Hathaway isn't concerned with that. She's willing to play a part like in "Brokeback Mountain" or "Love And Other Drugs" where she's downright difficult to like at times. She embraces it. When actors make really strong choices, and when they bring a complicated inner life to things, it can be off-putting. I look at the breadth of what Hathaway's done, and I see a very smart person making very smart choices, both in terms of material and performance.
I know that "One Day" is based on a well-liked book. I have neither read the book nor read about the book to any great degree. I just wanted to see this as a movie. I wasn't even entirely sure how the hook worked. I thought the two characters only saw each other on this one day every year for some reason, and the rest of the time, they were apart. Nope. Not at all. Instead, the film starts on the day they meet. It's not a special date except for the fact that it's when they meet. July 15th. And starting in 1988, we see every single July 15 for the next two decades. And that date simply becomes an arbitrary date to check in, to see where they've progressed.
On some of the days, they have been spending time together every day. In other years, there's a distance between them. Their relationship ebbs and flows and there's a sort of pre-determined hurry-up-with-it quality to them finally ending up together. Just watching it onscreen, the device quickly becomes tiresome, and you sort of long for the film to indulge some more detailed storytelling. Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway both do exactly what's requested of them, but the issue I have is with the way those characters are defined on the page. Right now, you could call this "Saint Hottie And The Jerk-Off".
Sturgess is Dex, a guy whose one big dream is to be a television presenter, an empty suit and a vacant smile, a professional placeholder. Emma is Hathaway's character, a smart, funny, somewhat insecure girl who wants to be a writer. She is written as the up-on-a-pedestal dream girl version of this character, and Hathaway does exactly what they ask her to do. She becomes more and more secure about herself, her feelings for Dex, her work, and everything else, and Hathaway is able to convincingly show this character growing into her own skin, growing more and more comfortable. Likewise, Sturgess is very good at playing a ruined, coked-out phony. My problem is that Dex is so profoundly unlikeable from the very start that it makes no sense for us to root about his love life. I don't care if this shallow idiot ever finds love or not, especially when he's so awful to the over-the-top wonderful Emma. She's a schoolteacher who is great with kids, and she's a talented writer of children's books, and she's warm and she's sexy and she's forgiving of all of his flaws. She's perfect, to the same degree that he's perfectly awful. And the only reason there's any investment in the situation is because that's the convention of the genre, not because anything we see onscreen earns it.
It's funny how these films work… what strikes one person as tin-eared and phony can reduce another person to tears because of something they experienced or because of some aspect of the film. Or just because one person is more resistant to being manipulated than another one. And there is a austere sort of reserve to the way Lone Scherfig put the film together. But the script by David Nicholls is so determined to hit each and every year along the way, so determined to keep to that single date and nothing else, that it just ends up feeling formulaic. It wore me out. And it wore out my patience believing that all of these key events would happen on the same day. It's too easy, too much of a stretch. The film's eventual payoff isn't worth the journey, and the film offers up easy bromides instead of any genuine insight into the way we build our lives together.
The film is polished, certainly, and I feel like all involved executed their jobs properly. It's just that the story is nothing new, nothing we haven't see before, and without some addition to the genre, some fresh perspective, what's the point? I feel like there was a checklist Nicholls wanted to hit, beats he knows should be in a story like this, but not one of them feels honest or earned, and in a film like this, that's deadly for me as a viewer. I can't recommend "One Day" to any but the most forgiving fans of romantic pap, and even they may find their patience tested by the familiar that overloads any good work in the film.
"One Day" opens everywhere this Friday.