The disposable new romance One Day is notable chiefly for being Anne Hathaway's fourth venture into ugly duckling territory. She can act, too (see Brokeback Mountain), but there's no tamping down the glossy dark beauty that raised her from a gawky teen who morphs into a soignee royal under the tutelage of Julie Andrews in the charming The Princess Diaries, or from grad-school preppy duds to designer threads in The Devil Wears Prada, the better to take crap from Meryl Streep. When she hid her lustrous tresses under a chopped shag to play an unhappy junkie in Rachel Getting Married, the net effect was to bring out her inner gamine. Hathaway's old-fashioned reserve, her fallback niceness, and her retro elegance in a little black dress and upswept chignon bring her as close to Audrey Hepburn as we get these brash, bare-it-all days.
One Day gets around to the black dress eventually, but the movie opens with Hathaway in sensible frocks, wire-rimmed spectacles and an intermittent North Country British accent as Emma, a sensible proletarian university student so untutored in bedroom etiquette that she puts Joan Armatrading on the turntable for a one-night stand with privileged playboy Dexter, a Lothario played rather smugly by Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe). Their tryst turns into an improbably platonic friendship whose progress this tidily structured film revisits annually over 20 years. The anniversary date won't ring a bell with most Americans, but in Britain, July 15 is St. Swithin's Day, when life can turn one way or the other depending on the weather.
Adapted by David Nicholls from his best-selling novel (wickedly nailed by New York Times book critic Janet Maslin as "the no-Sweden, no-vampire fiction hit of the summer"), One Day is capably, if unimaginatively, directed by the Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (An Education). Scherfig covers the bases of the made-for-export women's picture, flattening all specificity of character, place and culture into an easy-to-read shorthand for the movie tourist. The wardrobe is strenuously '90s, the ambiance travelogue-British -- Westminster Cathedral, Big Ben and all that, with over-exposed bits of Paris thrown in for added glamour.
But the unfolding parable of what really matters in life is strictly old-school, pre-bubble American. Armed with made-to-measure jackets and very little effort, Dex achieves lightning stardom as the coke-fortified host of an obnoxious TV game show, while hard-working Emma charts a slow and steady route through waitressing and school teaching to a bohemian writing life that never dislodges her good sense beyond a brief excursion into skinny-dipping with Dex. Hathaway expertly moves Emma from unfinished rough diamond to the polish of a mature woman, and when we finally see her swanning around Paris in that hard-earned little black number, it's hard to avoid a sharp intake of breath.
As Emma rises, Dex falls so low that even his BFF gets to make the statutory "I-love-you-but-I-don't like-you" speech. In its long, baggy middle, the movie holds out the quotidian pleasure of watching two young people traversing the unevenness of life and making all the usual mistakes with unsuitable partners. There are some lively ancillary performances, among them a precise turn from Patricia Clarkson as Dex's mother, who enjoys his wild-boy antics while making it clear that he has yet to discover his best self; and an all too brief appearance as Dex's wife from the talented Romola Garai (Atonement).
Yet One Day ends up fatally compromised by its glib recourse to death and cancer as moral wake-up calls. Toward the end, the action takes a left turn into cheap and nasty sensation -- a panicked awakening, perhaps, to the need for plot, or Nicholls' need to play God with his characters and his audience. A stitched-on coda supplies missing information about Dex and Emma's first day together that's meant to convince us this match was made in heaven. One Day persists in asking when this clueless pair will wake up to the truth that they are meant to be, but it had me wondering why on earth someone like Emma would give a featherweight brat like Dex the time of day. The short answer is that no popular storyteller ever went broke stoking the undying female fantasy that if a good woman puts her mind to it, a heel can always be brought to heel.