One Day

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
One Day
Year of Release: 2011
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language, and substance abuse.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes.
Spoilers: Moderate. (General ending is revealed, but the crucial final details are not.)

Sometimes, on nights when even your favorite television shows have gotten stale and nothing in your Netflix cue sounds remotely appetizing, there’s little left to do but ask yourself, “Hey, there’s that shitty movie I saw three years ago; wonder if it’s still shitty?”

The film I’m talking about is One Day starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. My mom and I saw it in theatres mostly because it was the only thing we could agree on, as our options (Conan the Barbarian; Spy Kids) were rather limited. After the credits rolled, our reviews closely matched the general consensus of the good people over at Rotten Tomatoes (which awarded One Day with a cringe-worthy 36% approval rating): monotonous, dull, shallow. But last weekend, I decided to try again.

One Day is the story of two friends, Emma Morley (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess), told over the span of twenty years. Emma and Dexter first meet on the night of their college graduation from the University of Edinburgh, and after deciding to forgo a one-night stand for reasons that are still unclear to me (how cute is Emma posing with her academic regalia thrown over her skivvies?), the two decide to stay friends. From here, the film follows a rather unconventional format of “checking in” with Emma and Dexter, be they together or apart, on July 15 of each consecutive year.

At first, Emma and Dexter function as two necessary halves of the same whole, each with qualities that the other lacks. Though Emma fancies herself a writer, she lacks the free-spirited flexibility that would bolster her creativity and instead commits to waitressing at a Tex-Mex restaurant. Dexter’s career in television, in contrast, is taking off. His rise to fame as a tacky game show host enables him to do what he does best – womanize – while Emma reluctantly settles down with her well-meaning albeit dumpy co-worker Ian (Rafe Spall). But when Dexter shows up to visit his dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) heavily under the influence, it becomes clear that his TV persona façade can’t hold out much longer.

Predictably, Emma and Dexter’s relationship navigates a sea of ups and downs – substance abuse issues, unsatisfying romances, career changes, job losses, weddings, divorces, and even a terrible fight in their late twenties that halts their correspondence for four long years. Also predictably, despite all of the conflict Emma and Dexter ultimately wind up together (though there is more to that ending that I won’t disclose because Huge Spoilers). Too predictable? Could there have been another option? Let’s start here.

It’s a common dramatic trope to have the male protagonist end up with the first female character introduced to the audience. See also: the recent conclusion of How I Met Your Mother. This formula works because it creates its own plot arc, allows for plenty of conflict as each character sorts themselves out, and concludes with the “full-circle” feel we look for in a narrative. Realistically, there was no other option for either Emma or Dexter in One Day – we knew that Ian was boring, that Sylvie (Romola Garai)’s personality was likewise entirely too flat and dismissive for the rambunctious Dexter, and really, where were things going to go with Emma’s Parisian jazz musician?

I’ve always liked this trope because it flies in the face of so much of what we’re (I believe incorrectly) taught about love: that “true romance” is an instantaneous deus ex machina flash of revelation rather than a strong and complex connection built over time. While chasing storybook fantasies, we treat romantic love as an altogether different beast than friendship, when in fact foundational friendship is crucial for any relationship – familial, platonic, romantic – to last. Dexter begins to grasp this for a brief moment when he and Emma go on vacation together in their early twenties. The problem is, I pretty much fancy everyone, he admits during an impromptu skinny dip, but with you it would be…different. Of course, having said too much, Dexter quickly backpedals by proposing a casual summer fling, to which Emma responds by holding him underwater. The bond he shares with Emma is way beyond fling material, but like many of us, Dexter needs time to mature and figure this out.

Rewinding to 2011, I think that my main beef with this film was that I didn’t feel genuinely connected to the characters because the audience was only privy to periodic splices out of their lives. I didn’t feel that I got the proper chance to know them, but now, taking the sequence year by year, I understand that I had to develop myself in order to better identify with Emma and Dexter’s development. The dynamics between the two, particularly as they hit career shifts, are expertly crafted: my favorite scene by far is the “those who can’t do, teach” argument, given that I’ve been on Emma’s end of this before and experienced her fury. Frustrated with his own shallow, failing career, Dexter attacks Emma’s, resulting in the blowup that won’t be resolved for four years. I love you, Dex, Emma says before running off, I just don’t like you anymore. And there it is: in order for there to be love, there must first be like. So while there are several of things to criticize about this film – the awful repetition of the same four measures of score at every yearly transition, Anne Hathaway’s frustratingly inconsistent Yorkshire accent – this central concept is not one of them.

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