'One Day': Life Is Trite
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
In the '60s, Alfred Hitchcock related this bit of Hollywood apocrypha to François Truffaut: "There was this movie writer who seemed to have his best ideas in the middle of the night, and when he woke up in the morning, he never remembered them. So one day the man had a brilliant idea. He said to himself, 'I'll put a paper and pencil beside my bed, and when I get an idea, I'll write it down.' So he went to bed, and sure enough, in the middle of the night he awoke with a terrific idea. He wrote it down and went back to sleep. When he awoke the next morning, he'd forgotten the whole thing, but all of a sudden, as he was shaving, he thought to himself, 'Oh, God, I had a terrific idea again last night, and now I've forgotten it. But wait, I had my paper and pencil; that's right, I wrote it down!' So he rushed into the bedroom and picked up the note and read what he'd written: 'Boy meets girl!'"
The funny thing is, "Boy meets girl" still qualifies as an ostensibly terrific idea, because it's still the essential stuff that best-sellers and box-office hits are made of. David Nicholls' novel "One Day" was the "it" beach book of the summer of 2009, apparently (n.b., in 1998 this reviewer brought Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler" on a weeklong oceanside sojourn), and it is, essentially, just such a story: On the evening of graduation from university ('cause this takes place in Britain, you see), golden boy Dexter (Jim Sturgess) meets wallflower Emma (Anne Hathaway), and from there the two characters lose and find each other, taking the better part of two decades to recognize that they're really soul mates and to do something about it, and then...
Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, although the mechanics of this picture struck this viewer as so manifestly obvious from the second minute of the film onward that he considers it an insult to your intelligence to call the revelations of any particular plot points "spoilers." But what the heck, I'll play along with convention and merely point out that the hook here is that the story is told, as the title implies, over one day, except it's one day of the year for over those two decades, and it's always the same day, July 15, St. Swithin's Day, Dex points out as the dawn comes; a day cited in a famed poem about rain, Emma adds.
The literary reference and all that it implies could fuel an argument that beyond boy-meets-girl this is a story about life, and how precious it is, and how we ought to treasure every moment, even with all the changes we put each other through. And yes, it is about that ... rather tritely about that, I regret having to say. Every July 15 scene brings a new bit of pertinent set-design, a new pop song to signify the era (that the filmmakers did not include a song by Oasis seems their only attempt to not make bone-crushingly obvious choices; on the other hand, maybe they couldn't afford the rights), and a new haircut for at least one of the characters. You can tell that best friends Dex and Emma are finally going to at least give sleeping together a cursory shot around the time that Emma's hair starts getting kind of good.
This sort of blatantly sentimental and eventually tear-jerking material needs two things to make it work: one, a director uninhibited (some might say shameless) enough to really sell it, someone along the lines of a Leo McCarey (see 1939's "Love Affair" and/or its remake "An Affair to Remember," both of which represent arguably better material to begin with, but you understand my point). Lone Scherfig, the tasteful, scrupulous eye behind "An Education" is simply too careful and deliberately understated for such a task.
The other thing is a genuinely magical lead cast. Sturgess is appealing but a trifle amorphous, but he's not the one the onus is on here; that would be Hathaway, who's been enchanting in other films but falls rather flat here. She can't keep up a consistent British accent -- one minute she sounds like an SCTV actor making fun of a bad Liverpudlian dialect, the next like Nigella Lawson -- but that's not even her main problem, which is that she just doesn't animate her ugly-duckling-turned-swan character in any meaningful way. She lacks spark. And without spark, there are no ... tears? Full disclosure: My screening companion, to whom I am married, did tear up a little by the end of "One Day." Which actually made her dislike the film a little more, in a resentful way. So there you have it. Caveat emptor?
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.