Not a lot of love affairs, real or cinematic, can have it said of them that they end better than they begin. But One Day ends with a heartfelt flourish that was sorely missing from its first 90 minutes.
This episodic romance works in fits and starts, and it captures a bittersweet faux British turn by Anne Hathaway, plainly mismatched in being paired with real-life Brit Jim Sturgess (The Way Back).
The conceit in novelist-screenwriter David Nicholls' tale is that two friends drunkenly tumble into bed on the night of their college graduation in 1988. But nothing happens — so they say. He's game, then she's game, then he isn't.
They note the date of their tryst — July 15, St. Swithun's Day. The book and film catch up with them over the years as they catch up with each other on St. Swithun's Day. Emma (Hathaway) settles into a waitress job at a Mexican restaurant, resisting the overtures of the clumsy would-be comic Ian (Rafe Spall). Dex (Sturgess) takes on the guise of the "one that got away" and who keeps getting away. He travels. He lands TV hosting jobs.
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And during the course of the next 18 years, they do-si-do around the idea that they should be together. He flails about through fame, then infamy, shallow affairs and addictions, and she "settles," letting her low self-esteem hem her into a life of quiet doe-eyed desperation.
They continue to flirt. She comes on a little desperate, for instance, when she takes a London flat and Dex helps her with the move.
"I'll bet this bed could tell some stories," he cracks.
"Short stories," she cracks back.
The banter is pleasant enough, but there's a funereal air hanging over the would-be affair. Her routine settles in — "Head home, cup o' tea, weep." He's meant to build her up, save her.
But there's just no magic in any of this. For a movie seemingly designed to have this wistful, romantic arc, One Day never quite reaches that opening "meet cute" moment. She reads the popular novels of the day (The Unbearable Lightness of Being at one point), and he pleads with her to "be spontaneous," never once suggesting that he's the sort of chap she'd want to be spontaneous with.
Hathaway is an old hand at British accents and is convincingly demure, uptight and English. Patricia Clarkson, playing Dex's mom, doesn't have to play the first two and fails at the third — a rare off-key, off-accent performance for her.
It's a frustrating film, never light enough on its feet to be cute, never heartfelt enough to achieve "You had me at 'Hello.'" Lone Scherfig (An Education) can't find the pulse, the romance, of this story. It's a British adult version of Flipped in which the guy doesn't seem self-aware enough to realize in any decent interval of time how special the girl is and how he should stop letting her down.
Dex and Emma have their ups and downs, but it's never obvious why she carries a torch for this guy after she has aged out of her girlish "he's so handsome" attraction.
That results in a romance that is wistful, half-hearted and melancholy, a love affair without the spark that ignites such love affairs. And if we can't root for the couple, what is the point of the couple?