One Day, the romance starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, based on the best-selling novel by David Nichols, opened this past weekend. If you did not see it (and it opened to a very paltry $5 million, so this is a high probability) or read the book, and want to remain unspoiled on the twist ending, read no further: spoilers ahead.
For most of its running time, One Day is a light romance about Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), two very different people who are perfect for each other but take their sweet time realizing it. The couple meet in college in 1988, and though the film checks in on them every July 15 that follows, the two don't get together until 2001. Three years later, on July 15, 2004 (big life events have the cooperative tendency of falling on July 15 in this particular universe) — about four fifths of the way through the film and 50 pages from the end of the novel — the movie suddenly changes course and attempts to become a weepie. Hathaway's character abruptly dies, after being hit so violently by a truck (her body actually makes a parabola through the air) it first plays like a callback to Mean Girls. But it's not a comic moment, and the rest of the movie dwells on Sturgess's tears.
One Day's last-minute death, which is also part of the 2009 novel and is just as just as sudden and aggravating there, isn't an organic twist, it's a brazen play for the higher-brow. The sudden tragedy has worked for romances before, including but not limited to Love Story, Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias, My Life, Dying Young, and even Hathaway’s Love and Other Drugs. Unlike those films, however, One Day is not about a long progressive illness. (Those movies basically advertised themselves with "Bring your hankies to the theater!" taglines.) Its death is sudden, and to those unfamiliar with the book, unexpected: It's not in keeping with the mood, which has been, up until then, a thinking-person's romantic comedy. As such, One Day isn't so much part of a long tradition of weepies, as it is a follower of the recent "don't give an audience what they want" craze.
Not giving an audience what they want has become the new artistic integrity in a post-Sopranos world. What David Chase did so powerfully and artfully in that show, as David Simon did in The Wire, is skillfully subvert audience expectations again and again, refusing to go along with the usual TV conventions of happy endings or just desserts. Since those shows set the bar, that approach to writing has become a sort of shorthand for quality and an end unto itself. The emotional yo-yoing that was an integral part of those series was subsequently done well in Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, and others, but it has also been adopted by far lesser entertainments with artistic aspirations.
Unexpected ups and downs are only meaningful if they're substantive and make sense for the characters and the story. Yet they're now used as a convenient defense by writers or directors whose twists are criticized by fans or critics as nonsensical. The Killing's executive producer Veena Sud defended herself after her execrable closure-less finale by arguing that because it didn't give the audience what it wanted, it was actually quality entertainment, and likened it to the finale of The Sopranos. Even series far better than The Killing know that the best way to flash their seriousness credentials is to crow about how uncomfortable they'll make audiences: When Game of Thrones preens that all of the characters in it, no matter how central, can die, it's meant as a boast.
The makers of One Day also defend the ending of the movie and book by saying it's basically good because it's not what you were expecting. “The film wouldn’t be a good story if it hadn’t taken a very unexpected direction," the director Lone Scherfig told us. "You need to do something shocking, or else it’s just a 'will they or won’t they' story of best friends who could be something more, and that’s the oldest story there is," added David Nicholls, who wrote the book and the screenplay.
Admittedly, will-they-wont-they stories and happy endings are what's expected in Hollywood movies, but their frequency isn't what makes them bad. What makes so many romances bad is, well, that they're bad: unearned and meaningless. Pair two good-looking people with no chemistry or spark into the same film, dash off a screenplay with no ingenuity, humor, or pizazz, and voilà: Happy ending! But the first four fifths of One Day — the book and the movie — are that relatively rare thing, a not-stupid romance taking place in what looks like the real world between two people who seem as if they actually like each other. This is even more surprising in the film world. And considering how unique that is, Nicholls might have worried less about "shocking" us and more on just delivering on genre pleasures. Because a happy ending that didn't feel cheap? That may not be as "serious" as Hathaway's head-on collision, but, unlike her crash, it just might have been satisfying.