Ah, the “Just Friends” Movie

08/17/2011 4:00 AM |

One Day

Directed by Lone Scherfig

A man and a woman spend years working out their romantic relationship under the guise of just-friendship. When Harry Met Sally colonized that territory over two decades ago, and now it’s downright overpopulated. But David Nicholls’s Hornbyish novel One Day found a fresh angle by checking in with his Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley every year on the same day, from their meeting in Edinburgh in 1988 up on through the nineties and aughts. Now Lone Scherfig (An Education) has made the inevitable movie version, although it’s less revitalized Harry/Sally redux than romantic drama with some rueful British quips.

Anne Hathaway puts on owly nerd drag, at least at first, to play the brainy, wallflowery Em, while Jim Sturgess has to stumble around charmingly, then less charmingly, as spoiled rich kid turned debased TV presenter Dex. Neither of them show great depth (Hathaway, ever the attentive pupil, seems as concerned with mastering Emma’s tricky English-Scottish accent as anything else) but they do let their feelings evolve across their faces as they age—a process that happens credibly, for the most part.

At first, lacking the characters’ interior monologues, the time-skipping feels a mite rushed, especially after a meeting scene that should take its time but instead hits important plot points before jumping to the next year. Nicholls himself scripted the adaptation, a mixed blessing. He has full control over what bits to emphasize and excise, making many good decisions for his material, but weak points in the novel, like Emma’s goony stand-up comedian beau alternating between pathetic and hateful, are only amplified when made flesh without much alteration.

But under Scherfig’s steady direction—as demonstrated in her previous film, she has a gift for finding beauty in overcast English blues and grays, as well as lingering looks of disappointment—One Day stabilizes as it moves forward. Scherfig and Nicholls bring out the novel’s best quality: the way that Nicholls shows a relationship not quite working out, minus the contrivances of bad romantic comedies (and, it must be said, plus the most repetitively deployed limited-note theme music this side of Clint Eastwood). For that matter, it far exceeds the romance-lit-film standards established by Nichols Sparks; compared to The Notebook or Dear John, One Day is nearly as sophisticated as it may hope you’ll assume it is based on the British accents alone.

Opens August 19