Flaws make this a ‘Day’ to forget
You know that couple you sometimes get stuck with at a dinner party or over a weekend? He’s a self-absorbed jerk and she’s a scold, and no one can figure out why they’re together, least of all themselves. “One Day’’ is about them, and it feels like it should be called “The Longest Day.’’ A miscast, underwritten, drably directed adaptation of a very popular novel, it’s the feel-bad film of the summer and an almost perfect example of how not to turn a book into a movie.
Ironically, the story’s primary gimmick is cinema-ready. “One Day’’ peeks in on the relationship of Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess) and Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) every year (more or less) on July 15. In 1988, they’re two young Brits just graduated from the University of Edinburgh, tumbling into the sack after partying all night and chastely getting to know each other as the sun comes up. They go their separate ways but stay best chums, and the romantic suspense, such as it is, comes from watching their lives and desires never quite synching up over the following two decades until something has to give.
Problem number one: What do these two see in each other? Dex is a shallow golden boy, and Emma’s a shy intellectual (it must be the glasses) and a bit of a muddle. Happy marriages have been founded on less, but “One Day’’ never convinces us that these two make sense. That whimsical structural conceit - every July 15 and only July 15 - keeps us skating along the surface of the relationship, and it quickly turns into a chore. As Dex becomes the host of a gleefully vulgar British TV show, he descends a ladder of moral hollowness, but why should we care? We’ve hardly been introduced to him, and Sturgess doesn’t have the necessary depth or charisma to draw us in.
Hathaway has her own problems, the most obvious of which is that she shouldn’t be here at all. For one thing, she’s too innately graceful to play the ugly duckling, so we never believe Emma would carry a torch for this prat. That pales, though, next to the bizarre sounds coming out of Hathaway’s mouth - a British accent so unlocalized it could be emanating from a hole in the mid-Atlantic.
The actress managed to negotiate the period locutions of 2007’s “Becoming Jane’’ (as in Austen), but that proved only that she could speak fluent Merchant-Ivory. Emma is from Yorkshire, which has a very particular sound, and if you want genuine entertainment - as opposed to anything in this hapless, irritating movie - go to any of the online chat boards and witness the laughter and tears of actual British people as Hathaway fights the local accent and loses.
This shouldn’t matter to American audiences but it does, because Hathaway’s Emma is too generic to be rooted in any specifics of time, place, and culture. The movie slaps on the Britpop oldies and hopes for the best, but that’s just galling when there’s a perfect Emma right there playing the heroine’s best friend: Yorkshire-born actress Jodie Whittaker, so terrific opposite Peter O’Toole in “Venus’’ a few years back.
But we barely get to see her, since David Nicholls has boiled his novel down to a CliffsNotes’ screenplay that skimps on the supporting roles: Romola Garai hardly there as Dex’s wife; Rafe Spall (Timothy’s son) faring better as Emma’s gawky comedian boyfriend; Patricia Clarkson as the hero’s cancer-ridden mum, sporting an accent even more mangled than Hathaway’s. No, we’re stuck with Dex and Emma, and so is director Lone Scherfig, who never once musters the intelligent fizz of her 2009 breakthrough, “An Education.’’ Perhaps she knows she can’t do anything about the Big Twist that sinks the movie like a stone in the final act and that she films without care or finesse. Some movies manipulate you. This one mugs you.
What’s missing from “One Day’’ is everything going on inside the characters, and that, of course, is what the book was about - all the scared, admiring thoughts running through Dex’s head on page 69 as he looks at Emma and says, with the singular stupidity of youth, “You know, Em, if you’re still single when you’re forty I’ll marry you.’’
The movie gets the stupidity right but precious little else.