Directed by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig from a screenplay and novel by David Nicholls, 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 postgraduation 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, 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 of most of the landmark moments in their lives, including a major rift, their most significant hookup, 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. In keeping with the novel, the film's most romantic scene, which should chronologically occur near the beginning, is saved for last, resurrecting a relationship that we know is intractably finished. It's nonlinearity for the sole purpose of emotional manipulation.
"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 cohost of the Oscars, where James Franco's somnambulant apathy threw her impatient perfectionism into relief. She gives a similarly agitated performance 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' apparent inability to relax exacerbates One Day's relentless forward motion. Emma and Dexter's coupling has not a single serious obstacle; each manages to hack together just one significant relationship with someone else, and both of those someone elses are patently intolerable from frame one. And 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. It's notable that Scherfig's version of evoking period is limited to rib-nudging about outdated fashion, forgettable pop, and the evolution of the cell phone.)
Scherfig's Italian for Beginners proved that the austere aesthetic strictures of Danish filmmaking could accommodate a fizzy, Miramax-primed, Euro-rom-com. Her first major English-language feature, An Education, premiered distributorless at Sundance and was eventually nominated for three Oscars. One Day may be a departure from these nominal indies in its comparatively high budget and star wattage, but it also seems like the logical destination for a filmmaker whose work has always betrayed an ambition to make middlebrow American movies with a straight-faced reverence that, in this day and age, perhaps only a foreigner could pull off. But for an entry in a genre of films that frequently work as guilty pleasures even at their most formulaic, One Day doesn't offer much pleasure. Great Hollywood melodrama is art; One Day is kitsch.