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One Day

August 20, 2011
One Day

You know what would be a neat idea? Watching a couple as they encounter each other again and again over the course of many years. That would make a great movie. And it did, in 1978 with Same Time, Next Year, adapting the stage play of the same name. And it did again, in 1989 with When Harry Met Sally. And now we have One Day, adapted for the screen by David Nicholls from his own novel, proving that even a great concept requires a good execution.

In this case we have Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess). They meet — not quite for the first time — as they graduate from university on July 14, the day before St. Swithun’s Day, in 1988. They have a romantic near-miss, and we begin to peek in on their lives every July 15 from then on. Emma moves to London, where she loses her youthful idealism working in a terrible Mexican restaurant before changing tacks to become a teacher. Dexter takes off on his career as a lowbrow, late-night television presenter and becomes quite the jerk before redeeming himself — which is pretty much a given.

The problem is, they clearly have lives and interactions between these dates. Worse, most of them don’t even involve the two, and nothing at all happens on some of them, though we do get an obligatory non sequitur of a scene. We lose the immediacy of two people who themselves are only interacting at intervals. I can see how it might have been better handled as a novel, but the amount of violence Nicholls would have had to do to his own work makes me wonder why he didn’t simply refuse?

We get even less sense of some of the tangential figures, like Dexter’s first wife, Sylvie (Romola Garai), Emma’s dork of an erstwhile boyfriend, Ian (Rafe Spall), Dexter’s parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ken Stott), and Emma’s.. well, I suppose Emma must have been an orphan, since she never so much as mentions her parents. These aren’t so much characters as they are cardboard cutouts held up to provide some sort of human scenery.

For that matter, Emma and Dexter aren’t much of characters either. Other than Dexter’s obvious arc, neither of them shows any sort of growth or development over the course of two decades. But why should they? The world they live in stays pretty much the same as well, with the exception of hairstyles, clothes, and background music. These are not exactly placid times they live through, and yet the fall of Soviet Russia and the Eastern Bloc, the rise of neoconservatism, and the July 7 bombings — which took place a mere week before the 2005 sequence — have absolutely no effect on them. The only nods to a changing world are the appearance of mobile phones and the popularity of organic cuisine.

With such bland and unremarkable characters, it’s not surprising that the acting barely registers. Sturgess is forgettable at best, and has no chemistry whatsoever with Hathaway. For her part, she manages to keep it down to a single gratuitously naked appearance. The rest of the time she mostly spends as the frizzed-out faux-nerd that wasn’t even plausible in The Princess Diaries. But even that is preferable to the sequence in Paris where director Lone Scherfig has the temerity to position her as a replacement for Audrey Hepburn, as if that would even be possible.

And it’s really at her and Nicholls’ feet that I lay most of the blame. Bereft of Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard’s talents in this go-round, she comes up with a flabby, lazy mess of crude sentimentality and obvious plotting. When the cheapest, lowest possible climax does come along, what little momentum the film did have is flattened like it got hit with a truck, and yet we still have about twenty minutes before the story is put out of its misery.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jake permalink
    August 24, 2011 06:23

    Shame – The book was actually great but it sounds like the film bears little resemblence.

  2. August 24, 2011 07:08

    Well like I said, it’s not like the screenplay was out of the book’s author’s hands, which is the usual culprit in a bad adaptation.

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