Like so many pictures about love, the romantic drama One Day seems to take place in an unrecognizable alternate universe, albeit a boring and annoying one.
The one day in question is St. Swithin's Day, July 15. On July 15, 1988, sensible working-class girl Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) and obnoxious, well-off Dexter Mayhew (the overestimated Jim Sturgess) graduate from the University of Edinburgh and, finding themselves otherwise alone, wind up making a dash for the bedroom despite being considerably less cozy than two peas in a pod.
And here's where One Day runs off the rails. As the two attractive youngsters undress, Emma asks, "So what will you be, when you're forty?" Who does that? (His answer, by the way: "Be reckless! Live for the moment!") Even if you accept the line as an expression of Emma's social awkwardness—and, perhaps, part of the reason why the pair doesn't actually do the deed—the line is a bluntly clumsy signal of where the film intends to take us over the next one hundred minutes.
For One Day reunites us with Dex and Emma repeatedly on July 15s, between 1988 and 2006. Yes, these are the days of their lives (if not exactly Same Time Next Year). So we will inevitably find out exactly what Dex will be when he's forty. But by then you'll be long past caring. For One Day's annoying artificiality comes with no compensatory effervescence, a requirement of a romantic picture. Instead, it's near impossible to sympathize with Dex (a sexually voracious, selfish, superficial jerk) or Emma (the woman who loves him) as the BFFs sniff around each other for decades.
Like the considerably more charming Starter for 10, One Day has been adapted by David Nicholls from his own novel. But the prevailing artistic force here is director Lone Scherfig, and her treatment of the material is so much bourgeois tastelessness (beginning with the comically oversized credits, which will have you wondering if you somehow picked up the large-print edition). Scherfig goes straight for romance-novel fantasy: do not pass Reality; do not collect $200. In what universe, you may ask, do two people not gain an ounce of fat over twenty years? (Hathaway only gets more attractive, in fact.)
One Day delivers not one, but two phony accents, Hathaway's and that of Patricia Clarkson, cast as Dex's ailing mother. In one of the film's most puzzling scenes, Dex demonstrates the height of his callousness by going to see his mother, then sleeping through the whole visit (there's an intimation he may be on drugs, but that's never made clear). When even the audience can't see anything in him, Emma's abused-puppy love for him only seems more absurd.
The scene when Emma not so finally lays it on the line presumably is meant to trigger excitable clapping, but Dex will take quite a bit longer to get his act together, and by then you'll wonder if redemption was wasted on him. These characters must be better-rounded on the page, but the screen Dex is a vocation-less fool, and Emma, so much his better, a sucker to pine for him. Worse, Scherfig screws up big-time by telegraphing the romantic drama's clichéd climax, a final insult that leadens the whole mess with unearned weight.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]