‘One Day’ becomes a forgettable and haphazard mess

Focus Features/Courtesy

“One Day,” a tedious and plodding romantic comedy, is the cinematic equivalent of the proverbial kitchen sink.  It incorporates every single romantic comedy cliché — class differences, a dysfunctional family, an ugly duckling, a hopeless promise to preserve “the friendship,” a list of rules to help preserve said friendship and last, but certainly not least, a cancer-stricken parent. When used sparingly, a combination of these tried and true standbys can prove unusually effective, but when used indiscriminately, even the most gullible viewers are inclined to call its bluff.

Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess) meet in 1988 after their graduation from the University of Edinburgh. She’s an idealist; he’s whatever it takes to get a girl to sleep with him. She secretly loves him; he only loves himself.  After a painfully awkward (almost) hookup, they vow to remain friends and embark on an occasionally romantic, always complicated relationship that spans two decades, multiple careers and other lovers. “One Day” portrays Emma and Dexter’s mundane lives each successive year on the anniversary of the day they first met, July 15.

The snapshot method that “One Day” employs is both what initially draws you in and what ultimately dooms the entire film. Instead of getting a fluid narrative of interwoven pieces, you end up with a disjointed, almost SparkNotes-like summary of their lives that lacks cohesion and plausibility. Miraculously, all of their major events align on July 15, but the audience misses how they got there.  You don’t see Emma and Dexter become friends; Dexter just says that they should be friends, and a year later, what do you know, they’re friends.

Constrained by its unusual format, “One Day” is forced to reduce its characters to mere caricatures and stereotypes. In lieu of genuine character development, “One Day” simply takes two stock characters off the shelf, never bothering to give them any sort of nuance or detail. Emma becomes a Tracy Chapman-loving, Doc Marten-wearing, Kundera-reading pseudo-hippie with ambiguous political ideals. Likewise, Dexter is condensed into the hackneyed troubled rich kid with daddy issues-stereotype. No one even broaches how these two could have ever run in the same circle together at university.

There’s an inevitable epiphany nearly halfway through when a television executive tells Dexter, “Everyone loves you, but in that ironic love to hate you way.” Ironically, it is at that exact moment that you realize that you neither love nor hate Dexter, just as you neither love nor hate Emma. You straight up don’t care.
Even worse, “One Day” is miscast. Hathaway’s prime qualification for the part is her ability to convince everyone that she’s ugly, as proven by both “The Princess Diaries” and “The Devil Wears Prada.” At this point, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses is deemed enough to camouflage her flawless beauty and convince the entire cast that she’s mousy and undesirable. Hathaway’s accent is so forced, not to mention at times non-existent or completely off. She vacillates from an archaic, amateurish British accent to a Scottish accent to a Welsh accent to an American accent more times than she spontaneously bursts into tears, which is already an uncanny statistic.

Meanwhile, Sturgess is thoroughly adequate as the playboy-turned-sappy-romantic hero. He goes through all the motions, but he never stands out. Hathaway, atrocious accent and all, outshines him in nearly all of their scenes together, drowning him in her quick banter. He spends half the film just trying to keep up.

The true gem is the always brilliant Patricia Clarkson, who is relegated to a bit part as Dexter’s dying mother.  Regardless of the circumstance, Clarkson shines, acing her comedic lines and remaining sincere throughout some of the overwrought theatrics. She is the only one who remains at all lifelike and likeable.

Director Lone Scherfig’s previous film, “An Education,” made a standard coming-of-age story feel so real that the whole premise seemed almost new again. “An Education” never tried to be anything it wasn’t. It simply strove to be the best at what it was.

“One Day” would have done well to follow in those footsteps. Instead, it becomes a romantic comedy with an identity crisis. It clearly wants to be considered more than a run of the mill-rom-com but, in this day and age, a charming, authentic rendition is rare enough. With less ambition and pretension, “One Day” could have easily slipped into the realm of pleasant mediocrity. Unfortunately, it just ends up falling flat.