By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Whether it wears on us, wears us out, or we’re just being polite, somewhere along its tortuous path director Lone Scherfig’s “One Day” gains our interest. Or, maybe it’s just that we’ve come this far and are curious to see how things turn out for the couple who, visited each July 15, can’t quite figure out if they are just best friends or something more.
Gosh knows the movie tries all sorts of things to dissuade our attraction, including a tedious pace that assumes far too much patience on the part of its audience. Still, Anne Hathaway’s Emma and Jim Sturgess’s Dexter, two Brits just graduating college at film’s outset, do kindle enough of an opening spark to draw us into the convolutions that follow.
The July 15th thing, done before and a bit of a gimmick, spares the writer the effort of bothering with any intricate exposition. Merely popping in on either or both of the principals over the years, the screenplay apprises how things are turning out for the duo. Expectedly, their paths cross and diverge with regularity as time turns them into adults.
Originally the more realistic of the two, Emma has hopes of becoming a writer. But after a little more time than she thought she’d have to put in as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant, she’s in line to be manager because, as she notes, “They want someone who’s not going anywhere.” Yet at this juncture, Dexter is the one who has us most concerned.
Doubtless helped by good looks and a Devil-may-care demeanor, Dex is an overnight smash on a flashy, empty-headed TV show reminiscent of the nihilistic ruminations and antics in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). His posh parents, played by Patricia Clarkson and Ken Stott, can’t hide their disappointment. Maybe that’s why he’s drinking so much.
What’s more, the television personality has evolved into a world class womanizer. Hmm, nah, we don’t want Emma to wind up with him…at least not for now. And so it goes over the years, we casting our ballots as to whether or not they’ll finally get it together, literally, on this latest July 15. Just to confound us, each engages in a relationship or two.
And while we’ve little doubt that Emma and Dexter love each other, our faith in destiny is tested when Emma takes up with a struggling comedian (Rafe Spall) and Dexter figures to tie the knot with Emma’s blonde antithesis. Just as life has taken its toll on their dreams and ambitions, perhaps it’s also working its erosive effect on their romanticism.
In this respect, although he’s counting on us to hold out all manner of hope no matter what paths his likable protagonists take, David Nicholls’s screenplay gets quite dirge-like. Then, whether disingenuously or simply for lack of writing talent, he tosses us a bone of optimism. Of course, in good, hopeless romantic fashion, we opt to hang in there.
Which means putting up with Anne Hathaway’s British accent. Granted, probably the best dialect coaches in the realm schooled her in the King’s English. But whether too studied or even too perfect, it’s just wrong. With no great sociological essence at stake, the filmmaker should have either picked a British actress or made Emma an American.
A bona fide subject of the Queen, Mr. Sturgess has no problem with the native inflection. The dramatic failing here, intentionally or not, is that his Dexter increasingly becomes less important to us than Emma. Yes, we hope he conquers the demons of his youth. But now it’s in the greater context of Emma’s wellbeing that we care about Dex.
And while I’m grumbling, it bears noting that the lack of a truly engaging subplot doesn’t help what resultantly becomes a one trick pony. Patricia Clarkson as Dexter’s severely ailing mom establishes some cultural points and skillfully wins our sympathy. But it’s not the invigorative touch needed to inject more energy and breadth into the saga.
Though the idea of peeking in at regular intervals, a la “Same Time Next Year” (1978), initially promises a novel approach to storytelling, the director squanderingly uses it only as a handy framework and ventures little embellishment. Failing to artistically intertwine elements, she repentantly ties things together in a rather awkward addendum at the end.
But the concept of enduring love is at stake. And at the very least, Scherfig’s troubled effort manages to get us rooting for the ideal itself if not necessarily for the characters. So, if snowed in at your rented mountain cabin until they plow you out tomorrow, with only a DVD player and this movie someone left behind, figure hey, it’s only “One Day.”
“One Day,” rated PG-13, is a Focus Features release directed by Lone Scherfig and stars Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess and Rafe Spall. Running time: 108 minutes
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