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Review: ‘One Day’ Feels Like It Lasts Years and Years

David Nicholls may have made these characters more substantial on the page, but in the big-screen adaptation, the leads are so barely-there that a stiff breeze could whisk them away entirely

Vague approximation of a guy meets sketchy notion of an intelligent woman — and then they spend two decades circling each other for no apparent reason. It’s not exactly “boy meets girl,” but that’s the best that the new romance “One Day,” based on a bestselling novel that I have not read, has to offer.

Author David Nicholls may have made these characters more substantial on the page, but in the big-screen adaptation (which he wrote), the leads are so lightweight and barely-there that a stiff breeze in the projection booth could make them disappear entirely.

And since the whole movie is about the two of them and whether  they ever get together, that’s kind of a problem.

On July 15, 1988, Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) hook up at the end of a drunken night celebrating their graduation from college. (Sorry, university: They’re supposed to be from the U.K., although if you didn’t get that from Hathaway’s vague accent, you’re not alone.)

What’s supposed to be a booty call gets terribly awkward — she puts Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” on as mood music, he gets dressed to leave while she’s prepping in the bathroom — and then leads to what will become a lifelong friendship.

And so, we check in with these two every July 15 and observe the passage of time and the ups and downs of their lives.

Emma spins her wheels waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant and dating an untalented would-be stand-up comic (Rafe Spall), while Dex becomes a D-bag television personality and all-around shallow jerk. (One of the laziest tropes in contemporary fiction is to make one of your characters become famous, and “One Day” does it twice, as Emma eventually blossoms into a successful author of young-adult fiction, complete with Audrey Hepburn–esque makeover.)

Along the way, characters die, relationships begin and fall apart, but Emma and Dex somehow stay close and keep their unrequited love burning between them. But why, exactly?

“One Day” never bothers to spell out for us just who these people are, what they want, or why they do what they do. So it’s next to impossible to get revved up about their feelings for each other, except for the fact that Emma and Dex are the principal characters, and they’re being played by attractive, charismatic performers.

Nicholls’ wafer-thin screenplay eventually beats down both Hathaway and Sturgess, who try desperately to give this couple something approximating depth.

And the whole same-time-next-year business — which must have worked on the page, since the novel was huge with the book-club set — winds up feeling gimmicky and pointless.

Jumping through the turn of the 21st century was no doubt lots of fun for the hair and wardrobe department — Hathaway spends the first chunk of the film being frumped up with unflattering glasses and outfits, but Sturgess goes from posh preppy to ’90s fashion victim, sporting an array of looks you’d prayed would never return. (If only any of Sturgess’ lines had been as interesting as his hairdos.)

The music supervisor had a bit of a lark as well, throwing in Clinton-era jams from the likes of Fatboy Slim and Del Amitri, with some Robbie Williams karaoke thrown in once the film makes it to the 2000s.

But there’s only so much fun to be had with “Jurassic Park” references, denim vests, and “Sowing the Seeds of Love.”

Rather than tell a story that would organically elicit certain emotions, it feels like Nicholls and director Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) want us to yearn wistfully here and tear up there, and then they set out to create moments that would hit those marks. So we’re left with a plot that feels forced (and subsequently predictable) being acted out by ciphers.

Patricia Clarkson, as Dex’s mother, shines brightest among the cast, even though she’s saddled with a thankless role that’s all wise advice and the stoic avoidance of tears in a time of crisis. She’s taken the pudding cup the movie gives her and somehow transforms it into chocolate mousse.

The people behind “One Day” no doubt thought that the passing of the years within the story would be a potent reminder of how life slips right by us, but the more likely response is along the lines of, “Ugh, it’s only 2008? Is this movie ever going to be over?”