Telling a love story that spans many decades is no small feat, especially on film, where it takes more than a few shakes of baby powder and artificial neck folds to convincingly age an actor. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan pulled it off in When Harry Met Sally, aided by a variety of wigs and a bevy of Nora Ephron-provided bon mots. Forrest Gump tried, as did The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but doctored archival film reels and CGI wizening take you only so far. Groundhog Day did a bang-up job, but Harold Ramis had a sizable crutch—namely, that years and years played out onscreen without the characters having to turn a single calendar page.
One Day, a romantic dramedy based on the bestselling novel by David Nicholls (who also wrote the screenplay), employs a similar but savvier conceit—the relationship of the protagonists, Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess), plays out over the course of each July 15 between 1988 and 2007, the story swiftly skimming the surface of time like a stone skipping over vast expanses of water. There’s not much mystery as to where Emma and Dexter are ultimately headed—the movie poster, after all, shows them wrapped up in a kiss—but Nicholls’ clever temporal structure distracts attention from the foregone conclusion that is the movie’s plot. Well, for a while, anyway.
When we first meet Emma and Dexter, they fall into bed after drunkenly celebrating their college graduation, but fail to consummate the relationship (possibly because she selects Tracy Chapman as sex music). Emma is a staunch feminist with large glasses, frizzy hair and Doc Martens, and Dexter is a rich, handsome playboy who treats life like a complimentary all-you-can-eat buffet. But for reasons that aren’t immediately revealed thanks to the 24-hour storytelling limit, they become platonic friends.
Over the next few years she works as a waitress at a pathetic Mexican restaurant while he stumbles into a lucrative TV hosting job (think a British, early-’90s Ryan Seacrest). They take a holiday in their 20s that rekindles their almost-forgotten sexual chemistry but stop short of doing the deed.
A few years later, as Dexter begins an inevitable downward spiral fueled by alcohol, cocaine and narcissism, Emma finds a stable (if painfully awkward) boyfriend, launches a writing career and—by the looks of it—discovers the joys of flat-ironing. Emma is unabashedly in love with Dexter, and he’s only slightly more abashedly (or unwittingly) in love with her, but the timing never quite works out. Before they know it they are in their mid-30s, one of them has a failed marriage and a child, and there’s nothing to do but finally get together, against swells of manipulative string music.
This swan dive into melodrama is what makes the second half of One Day drag. In Nicholls’ book (which, to be fair, had 437 pages to tell its story as opposed to the movie’s relatively measly 108 minutes), Emma and Dexter are allowed to have subtle feelings and move slowly toward their star-crossed union; onscreen they hem and haw and throw themselves at—or away from—each other with such urgency and sudden force that I often feared the actors would get whiplash (maybe that’s what caused Hathaway’s shaky British accent?).
As the decades tick by, Sturgess is saddled with a salt-and-pepper ’do and crow’s feet that don’t look right on his smooth, baby face and that seem only to exacerbate Dexter’s emotional pain. And, as is the case with so many will-they-or-won’t-they pairings, as soon as the couple succumbs to their fated union, the chemistry flatlines.
That said, there are some surprises. The always-excellent Patricia Clarkson shows up as Dexter’s cancer-ridden mother. The obligatory sex scene is missing—it does not happen, inconveniently but refreshingly, on a July 15. And the ending will come as a shock to anyone who hasn’t read the novel (be forewarned that this is not your standard rom-com, and that the significance of One Day’s one day, when finally revealed, seeks to redefine the term “tearjerker”). It’s a sweet, harmless, meandering tale with an engaging gimmick, but a great love story—or a great movie—it’s not.