The title of "One Day" is, alas, meant to be taken literally. Based on the eponymous 2009 bestseller by David Nicholls, the film stars Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as star-crossed would-be lovers whose lives are presented to us in 20 annual, same-day installments, beginning on July 15, 1988.
Incidentally, why didn't the marketers open the film on July 15? Just asking.
The problem with this year-by-year structure is that the slow crawl to the end can seem agonizing if the film isn't engaging. And "One Day," despite strenuous attempts by all involved to make us laugh, cry, and laugh-cry, is more likely to induce winces. We've seen it all before – and better.
Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess) are first presented to us as tipsy, newly minted college graduates. Emma, from a working-class English background, has a secret crush on well-born Dex. With her yen not quite consummated, we are then subjected to the ongoing saga of how these two, year by year, dart in and out of each other's lives. When will Dex pull off the blinders and realize Emma is his soul mate? (One hint: If he did it early on, there wouldn't be a movie.)
This is one of those films where the lead actress's attractiveness is intentionally played down in the early scenes so that we can register her subsequent magical transformation into a looker. For Hathaway, circa 1988, this means geeky glasses and frumpy clothes. Also a northern British accent that is somewhat variable depending on the scene. Its authenticity is generally in inverse proportion to her decibel level.
Emma dreams of becoming a writer – we know she's an intellectual because she reads Milan Kundera – but is stuck waitressing in a dead-end Tex-Mex restaurant. Dex, meanwhile, has a burgeoning career as a TV presenter on moronic variety shows. This turns out to be something of a dead end, too. (Are we supposed to think he's a failure because he didn't make it big with even more moronic TV shows?)
As each year ticked off on the screen, I began to dread the next installment because I could see where this all was headed long before either Emma or Dex did. (And no, I haven't read the book.) I was overprepared for the inevitable moment when Emma utters the immortal words, "I love you, Dex. I really do. I just don't like you anymore."
But of course, she's fibbing, even if she doesn't realize it at the time. Emma may live in Paris and have a hottie French boyfriend. She may be a successful children's book author. None of this really matters when it comes to the love of her life.
But why is Dex such an immovable fixture in her fantasy life? Emma's decades-long adoration has to be accepted as a given. If not, the whole thing falls apart, which it sort of does anyway.
Sturgess, despite going through a lengthy character arc, doesn't change much as an actor from year to year. Hathaway is somewhat more convincing, if only because her performance, along with her accent, settles down as the years tick off. The aging jobs on the two leads are not very convincing – they look about seven years older by the end. This is just as well, since most movie characters are aged so inauthentically they seem to jump from cherub to Methuselah in a single bound.
Director Lone Scherfig, working from Nicholls's screenplay, takes a big step back here from "An Education," her last film. For all its faults, that movie had a rigor and a sense of human loss almost entirely missing from this rom-com weepie. My guess is that she felt almost as hemmed in by the year-after-year ploddishness as we do. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity, language, some violence, and substance abuse.)