Although romantic dramas never seem to catch as much flack as their comedic counterparts, it's hard to deny that in the wake of Nicholas Sparks the genre is just as creatively stagnant. Lone Scherfig managed to bring some spontaneity and freshness to it in An Education, but her follow-up, One Day, adopts every trick in the book in telling its tale of star-crossed lovers.
With a screenplay by David Nicholls, based on his book of the same name, One Day stars Anne Hathaway as Emma, a working-class bookworm who meets and almost sleeps with the handsome, spoiled Dexter (Jim Sturgess) the night they graduate from college -- July 15, 1988. The two remain friends, and the movie's conceit is to show us what the two of them are up to, either separately or together, every July 15th for the next two decades.
While Emma struggles with a dead-end waitressing job and suffers endlessly awkward come-ons by her lame, would-be standup comic co-worker, Ian (Rafe Spall), Dexter becomes a celebrity television presenter greedily surrounding himself with drugs and beautiful women. But the elegantly wasted Dexter gets something of a wake-up call when his beloved mother (Patricia Clarkson) gets cancer. As the two life-long friends nurse each other through bad marriages, personal demons, and ill-timed realizations that they should be together, their undying devotion always threatens to overtake their friendship.
There is a core problem with the script for One Day that the actors, as hard as they're trying, can't overcome. Namely, Dexter is a horrible person. He's supposed to be boyishly immature, with flashes of the man he may become, but he's such a loathsome spoiled brat that you not only hate him, you hate Emma for caring about the guy. The only reason that such a smart, driven woman would be hung up on this insufferable, self-absorbed schmuck is that he's uncommonly beautiful. That may be a realistic motivation, but it doesn't make for great drama, and it certainly doesn't make for a relationship you actually want to see survive all these various personal hardships.
A romantic drama about two people who need to realize they should never be together in the first place would be something off the beaten path that this cast and this director, and maybe even this writer, could pull off. But because One Day wants so badly to get us to cry and care, failing to make the lead characters sympathetic becomes a black hole from which it never escapes.