One Day is a drippy, uninvolving movie adaptation of a best-selling novel once described by an Entertainment Weekly book critic as ”a nuanced love story disguised as a beach read” and ”a surprisingly deep romance” that opens with a ”Hollywood-ready setup.” That book critic now wants to ask this movie critic what went wrong. Conveniently, both critics are me.
But first, the Hollywood-ready setup: Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter Mayhew (Across the Universe’s Jim Sturgess) meet in 1988 on the day of their graduation from the University of Edinburgh. He’s a rich hottie for whom everything has come easily, especially women. She’s a funky, scholarly wonk from working-class stock, with aspirations of being a writer and little luck with men. The two spend a kind of cutely awful night together followed by a restoratively radiant day after that suggests the two are obviously meant for each other. Of course, they don’t know that yet. In fact, in the way of Jane Austen novels and When Harry Met Sally…, they don’t know it for years, during which Emma and Dexter are Just Best Friends — albeit the kind of BFs who pine for one another’s company even as their day-to-day circumstances separate them even further over the years. To dramatize the passage of time, both the book and the movie versions of One Day check in on Em and Dex every year for 20 years, always on the July anniversary of their meeting, to create a portrait of one couple’s love in all its happiness, sadness, confusion, and excitement.
Which comes back to the conundrum of the artful book versus the stilted movie — both of them written by David Nicholls, an engaging novelist-screenwriter (and former actor) who previously turned his 2003 novel Starter for Ten, also about university-level romance and class consciousness, into a nifty little 2007 movie of the same name starring James McAvoy. Why the fumble? To begin with, the casting is tragically, fatefully off. I’m not of the no-American-can-play-a-Brit school of casting (Renée Zellweger will forever be my Bridget Jones), but Anne Hathaway’s rangy American gameness, big smile and shining good health are the physical and psychological opposite of what makes Emma more than just an awkward duckling who takes a very long time to become a swan. Emma is meant to be all about self-disparaging little bons mots and quips and references with which she attempts to keep her spirits up while stuck in a miserable restaurant-service job, dating an unfunny aspiring comedian. Hathaway, meanwhile, looks like she could just chomp down on Sturgess’ Dex and swallow him like a Dove Bar with a lipsticked grin. And as a result, unsurprisingly, Sturgess looks none too happy — even more unhappy than Dex deserves to be as he temporarily slides into heavy drinking and a shallow job as host of a crap VH1-lite TV show. (Patricia Clarkson adds her own bit of Yankee-made Britishness as Dexter’s terribly glamorous, doting upper-class mum.)
Then, further unraveling: With the casting discordance, the dialogue doesn’t flow with anything resembling ease or even tonal logic. Danish director Lone Scherfig demonstrated her ability to infuse a talky script with plenty of wordless mood in An Education. But in One Day, the words — many of them taken directly from the book — are never convincing. The choices Emma and Dexter make on the page feel inevitable, even when the reader knows they’re bad choices. The choices they make on the screen look arbitrary — which is much worse than bad or wrongheaded, any day. C-