Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Talking ‘bout an Evolution: When a Movie Twosome Grows Ever More Tiresome

I thought that One Day would, at the very least, provide some eye candy with footage of Edinburgh, Paris and London. The film certainly flits between those gorgeous European cities while tracking its two protagonists as they continually relocate over the course of 23 years. The conceit is that Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), just after their 1988 university graduation in Scotland, have an unconsummated sexual encounter on July 15. According to British legend, the weather on that particular date will last for 40 more days. This annual holiday is dedicated to St. Swithin, a Saxon monk who died in 862.

You might ask what a 9th-century celibate priest would have known about romance but the characters never do. For another two decades, Emma and Dexter remain best friends separated by miles and life choices who continue dancing around the fact that they’re obviously soul mates. It’s a 108-minute cinematic tease. Exhaustion sets in. July 15, intended as some kind of mystical touchstone in their existence together and apart, keeps popping up on inter-titles that are ever more meaningless. St. Swithin, be damned. The weather is totally ignored.

Emma’s supposed to be a middle-class girl from Yorkshire, a notion soon dispelled by the accent that Hathaway (in danger of overexposure as an actress) tries but fails to maintain. She has literary ambitions. Dexter’s a smart upper-crust lad whose drug-taking and obsessive womanizing eventually render him shallow.

Director Lone Scherfig
Adapted from a 2009 bestselling novel by David Nicholls, who also wrote the mediocre script, One Day is stuck in a maddening episodic groove. That same year, Danish director Lone Scherfig infused An Education with the subtle, idiosyncratic exploration of a young person's search for identity. Such finesse is absent in her current release. Instead, we get a tedious and predictable missed-opportunity love story, pumped up by Rachel Portman’s sentimental score.

At first blush, Emma seems to be a slightly dowdy, bookish geek with radical politics. To set the mood for her one-night stand with Dexter, she puts Tracy Chapman’s “Talking ‘bout a Revolution” on the turntable. A definite turn-off. Her favorite t-shirt reads “Nuclear Disarmament Now.” These details are essentially just convenient props, however, soon forgotten. The couple’s conversations throughout center only on their career problems or relationship dilemmas – yawn! – rather than on ideas about the wider world changing around them. The most amusing moments (sort of) are when they sunbathe wearing swimsuits at a nude beach in the South of France, followed by a nighttime skinny-dipping misadventure.

Jim Sturgess & Anne Hathaway
Emma is an aspiring poet, though we never see her compose a single verse. Her typewriter and, much later, computer are also convenient props. She waitresses in a Mexican restaurant in the UK until attaining better jobs and eventually publishing a successful book for adolescents that appears to materialize from on high rather than emerge from the hard work of wordsmithing. After an off-screen trip to India to “find himself,” Dexter becomes the slick host of a television variety show that features dancing by scantily clad women, some of whom he beds. His parents (a truly mismatched Patricia Clarkson and Ken Stott) worry that their son’s intellect has been overwhelmed by his id. Sturgess is required to pout, snarl and look disgusted with himself for long stretches. He was far more effective as a hippie in Across the Universe (2007) longing for the girl that got away than as Dexter, the guy that got away.

Jim Sturgess & Patricia Clarkson
When our antihero finally commits, it’s to Sylvie (Romola Garai) and only because she’s pregnant with his child. His stint as a borderline responsible husband and dad devastates Emma, of course. She, meanwhile, has moved in with an unfunny stand-up comic wannabe named Ian (Rafe Spall, son of the always excellent Timothy) who adores her, but realizes he’s sloppy seconds.

SPOILER: Middle-aged Emma and Dexter finally do hook up, almost by default. While she should feel cheated by his wasted youth, destiny at last sets things right. Or does it? Her happiness-come-lately is brief. Fate intervenes to transform the proceedings into a weepie. Plot-wise, this manipulative twist undercuts all that has been before. Yet, all that has been before is so wan. Edinburgh, Paris and London are a disappointing blur. A much bigger concern: We’ve reached 2011 and there’s still no real nuclear disarmament.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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