Those who found the cutesy animated titles the weakest part of director Lone Scherfig's last film, the Oscar-nominated charmer An Education, will find themselves irritated again 20 times over by her latest, One Day. As the film checks on its characters each July 15 for 20 years, the date appears in dainty cursive font that floats, blows away and, at one point, pops up in a toaster with the toast. It's typical of the twee tone that undercuts the story's potential.
Like Scherfig's earlier film, One Day is a wry take on a classic cinematic staple, turning from the coming-of-age romance of An Education to a tale of star-crossed lovers. Adapted by David Nicholls from his novel, the tale takes its cues from the likes of The Way We Were and When Harry Met Sally ..., examining a male-female friendship seemingly destined to blossom into true love.
Said non-lovers are Emma (a British-accented Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess of Across the Universe), two University of Edinburgh students who almost enjoy a graduation-day fling in 1988, then remain in touch over the ensuing decades. Handsome, womanizing Dex becomes host of an obnoxious music show, while idealistic-yet-inhibited Emma sees her dreams of becoming a writer deferred first by waiting tables, then by teaching school. Over the years, as their respective fortunes rise and fall, they keep their annual date.
The story's conceit is clever, but translates poorly on film. Each new year means we get a few moments establishing where Emma and Dex are in their lives, followed by some exposition leading toward the next change. It's only in the story's latter half that the film really plays with the idea that we might have missed a few major plot points taking place prior to the July 15 check-in date, and throws a few curveballs at the audience.
More problematic is that Emma and Dex never seem like soul mates in the grandly cinematic manner of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/ Sunset movies. Instead, they are a prosaic couple who just hang out. There's rarely a sense that they share things with each other that they don't with other people, nor do we understand why Emma would be infatuated with a shallow cad like Dex for years. Much of the supporting cast is likewise given little beyond caricatures to work with, though Patricia Clarkson does her damnedest as Dex's dying mother, and Rafe Spall and Romola Garai (currently starring in BBC America's The Hour) manage to convey some sense of soul behind the love interests standing in the way of Emma and Dex's destiny.
One Day takes a hard turn into melodrama toward the end, which suggests a more poignant, thought-provoking story than the film actually delivers. Instead, it plays more like a low-level Miramax flick from a decade ago, the sort where Gwyneth Paltrow would have played Emma. One Day may seem to be a made-to-order date movie, but chances are good the title will approximate the sense of how long it feels.
Correction (Aug. 18, 2011): The day in question is July 15, not June 15.