Directed by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig from a screenplay by David Nicholls, based on his novel, One Day stars Anne Hathaway as Emma, a too-serious would-be writer in coke-bottle glasses and combat boots. She's nursing a crush on Dexter (Jim Sturgess), her too-good-looking rich-boy college classmate. She's earnest, tenacious, and crippled by middle-class insecurity; he's talentless and slides by on smile and swagger. It's July 15, 1988, and after a long night of post-graduation drinking, Em and Dex fall into bed—and instead of having sex, agree to be friends. The film then follows the pair through two decades worth of July 15s, their mutual attraction ebbing and flowing toward a long-delayed but clearly inevitable consummation.
The premise would seem ripe for a minimalist-realist treatment—you could imagine this done Jeanne Dielman-style, with all the stuff of life, spectacular or mundane, given equal time and weight—but neither Nicholls nor Scherfig is so conceptually inclined. In their hands, July 15 becomes the anniversary not only of Em and Dex's first meeting, but also most of the landmark moments in their lives, including a major rift, their most significant hook-up, their decision to procreate, and, finally, a fateful accident—which (spoiler alert, sort of) is teased in the film's opening scene. This is a deviation from the novel. It's as if the filmmakers are afraid that if we don't know that Something Big happens in 2006, we'll leave the theater before the movie gets there.
"Sense of humor is overrated," Emma says at one point, and while she means it ironically, the true irony is that One Day's sense of humor is sorely lacking. Hathaway and Sturgess oversell the script's wan attempts at wisecracks, which are already broad enough. (When shagging a French girl makes him late for an appointment, Dexter winkingly explains that he was "waylaid.") Hathaway falls into a mugging performance familiar from her stint as co-host of the Oscars, where James Franco's somnambulant apathy threw her impatient perfectionism into relief. She gives a similarly agitated turn here, often all but underlining a line reading in smug satisfaction, sometimes rushing through them as if to distract from her dodgy, hodgepodge British accent.
The actress's apparent inability to relax exacerbates One Day's relentless forward motion. Emma and Dexter's coupling has not a single serious obstacle, yet Scherfig and her actors are never able to sell the notion that these two are divinely matched. They parry and bicker for years without generating heat, their bond seemingly as superficial as the laughable makeup meant to age the stars into their 40s, through which neither looks a day over 28.
Indie director Scherfig, relying on costuming to tell us who her characters are and an omnipresent score to tell us how they feel, can't conjure the spark or swoon of what appear to be her Hollywood models of tragi-romance. Great Hollywood melodrama is art; One Day is kitsch.