It’s a trick. Get an axe.
— Ash (Bruce Campbell), Army of Darkness (1992)
Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) meet on the day they graduate from the University of Edinburgh. Err. Rather, as she points out, not a little resentfully, they’ve actually met before, and even spoken to one another. The fact that he’s forgotten doesn’t bode well for any experience except the sort imagined by a big screen romance. But since that’s exactly what One Day is, well, they’re soon enough writhing in one another’s arms, falling through the door of her teensy but neat flat, and headed to bed.
At least until she puts a brake on it, slipping into the bathroom, where she proceeds to do what you’re really hoping she won’t do, which is to talk to herself, trying to rally for a rapturous encounter. By the time she gets out the door again, he’s doing what you know he must, which is to put on his pants, apologizing because he’s really got something else he needs to do, after all. And so on. The movie in its first five minutes couldn’t be more predictable, including their resolution to this not-really-first meeting, which is to hold off the coupling so that the romance might be stretched out interminably.
That stretching is enhanced by the film’s awkward structure, drawn from the David Nicholls novel on which it’s based: their relationship takes shape over years, broken up into scenes on the same day, 15 July (St. Swithin’s Day, Dex reports) over decades. And yes, this means the lovers-to-be will endure not only repeated narrative interruptions and emotional roadblocks, but also egregious period music, bad hair, and unconvincing aging makeup.
One Day lumbers because of this gimmick, but also because of its premise, that these kids are just made for each other, even if they’re determined to remain “friends.” And so, no matter how stupid the twit Dex may seem, no matter how many slutty girls he beds or fast-cut nightclub scenes he inhabits, no matter how he abuses the trust of his mom (Patricia Clarkson) — who goes so far as to show up in a cancer-sign headscarf, so you know she’s got cancer and tell her wastrel son, “I worry that you’re not very nice” — well, Emma can’t help herself, she’s in love. And so she puts up with him, endlessly, his late-night drunken phone calls, his cruel appraisals, his betrayals and his lapses in judgment, in order that you understand that she is the perfect quirky girl.
This also makes her doomed of course, a point underlined in the movie’s very first, cut off scene, wherein she rides her bike through cobbly streets en route to the movie’s object lesson for Dex. Being middle-ish class and so automatically a “better person” than the snootily unself-aware, wealthy Dex, she not only has no visible family or confidants of her own. Rather, she’s identified by where she works in London for years, a low rent Mexican restaurant where she’s courted pretty incessantly by a wannabe standup comedian Ian (Rafe Spall), clearly not suited for her (he takes her to see Army of Darkness, which suggests he’s suited for someone with a better sense of humor) and so, another way for Dex to be educated. Ian, at least, dotes on Emma and recognizes her brilliance and warmth and beauty and wit. Dex, being the coked-out, self-absorbed Golden Boy, misses that part.
Instead, he pursues something like a career in TV. Specifically, he’s a presenter on a youth-targeting dance-and-interview show, where the lights are either too bright or lurid, the camera angled and lurching, and the girls monotonously exposed. As he sweats his way through a series of these performances, on separate days, Emma toils away at her duller life. An aspiring poet who wears glasses and doesn’t quite fret over her pallor and mousy hairdo, at first she’s depressed, and Dex tries to cheer her (“You’re the smartest person I know!”), even whisking her off on a beach holiday, during which she ticks off rules (no nudity, no flirting) they both promptly violate. The day (in 1992) fades out, and you check your watch, anticipating another couple of decades before all this romantic-not-quite-comedic business is sorted.
Dex and Emma will continue to dodge one another: she hooks up with Ian, who comes to resent her fixation on Dex. And as his so-called career (i.e., his youthful appearance) fades, Dex finds a rich wife Sylvie (Romola Garai). When he lays out for Emma that the upcoming nuptials are “shotgun,” she sort of forgives him, or at least can believe that he’s not actually in love with someone who’s not her. And so the back-and-forthing continues, through Dex’s newfound devotion to his baby daughter and enabled by his wife’s completely predictable infidelity. This reveal is especially ham-handed: Sylvie calls Dex, ostensibly to check on the baby, so that you see her other man in frame while she looks briefly troubled. The fact that Dex has indulged in similar scenes during phone calls with Emma is striking, only because his carrying on is merely what’s expected, while Sylvie’s makes her terrible, or at least, deserving of a divorce.
Thus Dex is redeemed. And Emma is still waiting. And you’re checking your watch, again.