July 15, 1988 and twenty more July 15s transpire in Lone Scherfig’s disappointing adaptation of the David Nicholls novel. On the first July 15 — Saint Swithin's day — two young lovers meet in Edinburgh on the cusp of graduation and adulthood. Jim Sturgess plays young Dex with overeager bravado and bouncing bangs. Anne Hathaway plays young Emma with downcast glances and grandma glasses. The two flirt, they kiss, they part. Their lives go on, alone, and occasionally together. Em suffers in crummy jobs and nearly gives up on her dreams while Dex goes on to superficial TV stardom. Then Dex suffers a fall and Em becomes a success. That’s the stuff of an epic romance, but this movie is not one.
First there was 30 Minutes or Less, which practically begged critics to ask for a shorter run time, and now One Day, which either feels like a whole day or could have been cut from twenty to one. This is an easy film to mock: There’s the fact that Emma and Dex age twenty years over the course of the film, but all that seems to change is their haircuts. Then there’s Anne Hathaway’s unsteady accent, Jim Sturgess’s vanity, and Scherfig’s almost-too-cute set dressing. Those concerns are all real but somewhat excusable: Hathaway’s accent is poor but there have been worse, some of Sturgess’s preening is somewhat within character, and Scherfig must make concessions to the tale’s difficult, artificial structure with some visual shorthand. And director Lone Scherfig deserves credit for aspiring to more than your standard, star-crossed, swoon-and-weep melodrama.
In An Education and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, Scherfig proved herself to be an actor’s director with an off-kilter, occasionally perverse sense of humor. One Day is similarly packed with unexpected moments that break out of the period-romance straitjacket structure: When Em takes a dispiriting job waiting tables in a crummy Mexican restaurant, she doesn’t just endure it, she gets good at it, takes pride in it, and even finds a boyfriend on the staff. Dex’s late-night hosting gig on a crummy teen music show is absurd corporate vulgarity, sure, but Scherfig establishes just how it might be seductive, too: You get the feel for just how easy it is to ride a wave without a thought that it might end. Throwaway moments and odd little gags — usually, on the July 15s when nothing very much happens — often feel life-size and poignant. The problem is that the film’s Big Scenes, especially the egregiously bathetic turns toward the end, often do not.
Jim Sturgess, who failed to generate much heat as the embodiment of the Beatles’ beating hearts in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, has similar trouble here: His Dex begins the film as an overprivileged golden child, evolves into a swaggering, cocksure prat, metastasizes into a coke-addicted, superficial TV host, and eventually, barely, settles down into the guise of a chastened fuck-up. Sturgess’s performance of this vain boy is just so wearyingly vain itself — his thumb hooked just so through a belt loop, collar flipped up rakishly, hair mussed just enough — that his performance feels more like posing.
Somehow, Em is supposed to adore Dex through most of that — perhaps admiring the bravado in him that she doesn’t see in herself, since for most of the film she’s a supercilious blowhard who wears her insecurity issues so boldly, it’s as if she knit them into some ugly sweater she stubbornly refuses to take off. It doesn’t help that Hathaway, who failed to strike up chemistry with Jake Gyllenhaal in Love and Other Drugs, is so self-contained, even for a Brit. In the end, Dex is an egotistical prick and Emma is a pill. But since Em isn’t, at bare minimum, a coke-addled train wreck, it’s still hard to understand why she sticks by him for so long, enduring his antics, even if his smile really is that damn cute.
In a film premised on the idea of some world-shaking electric connection, the two never fuse. In fact, their scenes alone (Em dating a mediocre comedian, Dex hosting his absurd TV show) are often more compelling than their moments together. Together, the actors seem to be trying so very hard to make this film work, to charm each other and woo the audience, that the effort is painfully apparent. They try so hard to make you love them, and love their love, that they make it impossible to ever like either of them..