Maybe it was all more resonant, more poignant on the page: the many highs and lows and major life shifts that occur during the decades-spanning friendship/romance between Emma and Dexter in “One Day.”
But here they feel so cursory and rushed, it’s as if we’re watching a filmed version of the CliffsNotes of David Nicholls’ best-seller. Nicholls himself adapted his novel into the screenplay, and the amount of material he tries to cram in suggests he didn’t know how or when to let go of his baby.
It’s a handsome misfire, though, with its tasteful production design and impeccable costumes — all very British, all very safe. And it’s all the more curious coming from Danish director Lone Scherfig, whose last film was the excellent “An Education” (2009), which was nominated for three Academy Awards including best picture. That film had a piercing insight about it, a startling honesty beneath its glamorous exterior. Nothing of the sort is to be found here.
The central conceit is this: Em (Anne Hathaway) and Dex (Jim Sturgess) meet after a long night of post-college graduation partying on July 15, 1988. She’s self-consciously middle-class, he’s breezily posh. They jump into bed but decide to remain just friends — but we all know where that’s headed.
“One Day” keeps coming back to that one day, year after year, and checks in with them as they date other people, forge careers, share awkward dinners and basically wait around until the eventual July 15 when they’ll be together. Hathaway is doing her jittery, frustrated comic shtick as an aspiring writer, but under the weight of an intermittent British accent, it feels distractingly actorly. The frequently shirtless Sturgess, meanwhile, plays a brash television personality with a coke problem, which is shorthand to suggest that he’s vapid. Because everyone on television is vapid.
The fact that they are destined for each other feels like a drudging inevitability, rather than a union that we’re looking forward to witnessing because the potential of it has provided such tension. The July 15ths play like dry shortcuts to catch us up on what’s happened all year: He has a new girlfriend; she has a new haircut, etc. (Although Hathaway is quite fetching during her Audrey Hepburn phase in Paris in 2003.) And playing pop songs that were popular in each of those years comes off as a lazy attempt at establishing a sense of time and place.
Big, weighty moments are thrust before us — and these should be serious hanky moments — but since the emotional groundwork hasn’t been laid for them, we’re not moved. We’re just not there with them yet. Emma and Dexter feel more like ideas or types, rather than fleshed-out characters, and the supporting players who supposedly function in pivotal roles for them barely register, too. They include Patricia Clarkson as Dexter’s upper-class mother and Romola Garai as his first wife.
More crucially, though, Hathaway and Sturgess lack the chemistry to make us yearn to see them together. They’re all wrong for each other physically, tonally, logically, which only makes “One Day” feel a whole lot longer.