The perversity of One Day is that it’s structured as the story of two people in a When Harry Met Sally-like friends-who-could-be-more relationship, yet it ultimately turns out to be something much less: the story of a boy and his saintly support network. As the longsuffering female half of the couple, Anne Hathaway is the exact opposite of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype: She has her own goals (largely to become a world-changing poet) and setbacks (world-changing poets aren’t common) and she’s more serious, mature, and emotionally burdened than her opposite number, spoiled playboy Jim Sturgess. And yet she seems to exist largely as Sturgess’ adjunct rather than an equal character, even as they both get roughly the same screen time.
Their story begins with their college graduation, where Hathaway tries inexpertly to seduce Sturgess, but they botch the assignation; One Day then checks in with them on the same day each year, and finds her emotionally fixated on him, but unwilling to settle for being just another in his long string of easy lays. While she cynically embraces the failure of her dreams and takes up a grimly unsatisfying waitressing job and an equally unsatisfying long-term relationship, he travels the world, becomes a popular TV personality, drinks and does drugs and fucks, struggles to accept that his mother (Patricia Clarkson) is dying, tries to maneuver Hathaway into the sack while maintaining his freewheeling lifestyle, and generally acts like an asshole. For him, much of the film is a downward spiral and a long climb back up; Hathaway, his one loyal friend, is either there for him or isn’t, depending on what her pride and his bad behavior will allow.
All this is slickly entertaining in the manner of a high-concept, energetic romantic comedy, coasting on the leads’ charm and their sprightly dialogues. But the movie maintains a sour undercurrent of emotional imbalance, as Sturgess’ neediness and hatefulness dominate the story, even as he remains the more dynamic and protean personality. Director Lone Scherfig (An Education) and screenwriter David Nicholls (adapting his novel, as he did with Starter For 10) stage much of the leads’ relationship as though it were a single long-running conversation, which often makes the one-day-a-year structure feel forced and unlikely, though it is intriguing watching the characters mature and change over a broad swath of time. Still, the ultimate end of the story reveals that it’s all about Sturgess’ suffering, which just isn’t that compelling a topic. Given its lack of center and balance, the film might more appropriately be called One Dude.