One Day (2011)
107 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -
The source material for a film rarely improves when it's taken to the screen. "One Day" seems to have lost something in the translation because David Nicholls' novel was a precious best-seller. To wit: this movie adaptation is a pretty-looking but uninvolving sudser. Never do you feel like the path-crossing lovers on display, played by the attractive Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, should ever be together, let alone be friends. Not even Harry and Sally would buy it. Perhaps it's like in real life when you don't understand from afar why that girl would be with that guy, but it's a film's job to make us feel that passion and yearning. Danish director Lone Scherfig (2009's terrific, keenly observed "An Education") is a promising guide for this bittersweet material and author Nicholls adapts the screenplay, but it becomes problematic when, frankly dear, we don't give a damn.
Meeting post-graduation at the University of Edinburgh on July 15th, St. Swithin's Day, in 1988, the bookish Emma and silver-spooned Dexter shack up in the same bed, solely as friends, and for the next twenty years remain friends. But on July 15th of every year, they either speak or see one another. Em dreams of becoming a novelist and living in Paris, but her literature degree isn't going to get her anywhere right away. Meanwhile, Dex works as a tacky TV personality, and his self-absorption really sets in. Tired of working as a sombrero-wearing waitress at a Tex-Mex restaurant, Em gets a visit from Dex in 1992 and they go on holiday. She lays down some ground rules, like no drunken cuddling or skinny dipping, so no physical contact will ruin their friendship, but they don't know any better. Over the years, these nearly-estranged best friends try staying in touch with phone calls and dinner dates. Eventually, they both date someone else, Em settling for a flailing comedian (Rafe Spall) and Dex finding his first wife (Romola Garai), but still count on one another when the going gets tough. They both love one another, but can't admit it.
It must've read more poignant on the page, the novel that is, because Em and Dex feel like sketches. Thus, Hathaway and Sturgess' performances are only as good as their material and they have very little to work with here. Hathaway has that lovely Audrey Hepburn quality working for her, albeit behind frumpy glasses in her early ugly-duckling phase, and sports an actorly British accent that's not as bad as most have ridiculed it. As Emma, she's fetching and brings tart wit, charm, and empathy to the part. As for Sturgess, charisma fails him here because either the actor was miscast or it was the way Dex was written. Dex is such a posh, narcissistic jerk that there's no way his parents gave birth to him; even his upper-class mum, Alison (Patricia Clarkson), tells him he's not nice anymore. In the long run, Dex still doesn't seem to grow or reform that much as a person. Clarkson shines in her touching, no-bull moments with Sturgess. Spall is even endearing as the underappreciated Ian, whom Emma (ludicrously) rejects romantically but lives with him anyway.
Nicholls adapting his own material doesn't do much to heighten our emotional involvement, the same-day, different-year gimmick doing a disservice to his characters. We check in with Em and Dex every year on the July anniversary of their first meeting, but the structure is too episodic to flesh them out. And when the film deals with death, it feels like too much of a shorthand. If "One Day" does anything right, it does ring true in its passage of time forcing friends to outgrow one another. It's just a shame the friends don't feel like the dearest of friends to make the sorrow-filled developments land a deeper, more meaningful impact.
Another Earth (2011)
92 min., rated R.
What if planet Earth had its own doppelganger? Not only that, what if there was 'another you' out there that mirrored yourself? "Another Earth," a low-budget Sundance-y film, poses such intriguing questions for characters that are wallowing in their own grief and hope to find salvation if given a second chance by another Earth. Actress Brit Marling and director Mike Cahill teamed up to write the screenplay, which is decidedly more earthbound indie drama than sci-fi disaster movie.
Having her whole life ahead of her, brainy 17-year-old Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) has a bright future after being accepted into an astrophysics program at MIT. She spends her last night celebrating with a few drinks and then getting behind the wheel. On the radio, she hears a newscast of scientists discovering another Earth that was hiding behind the sun and stares out her window at something blue in the sky, until crashing into a parked car. A woman and her son are killed instantly, while the husband/father slips into a coma, and Rhoda's potential grinds to an abrupt halt. Four years pass and Rhoda is released from prison, returning to live with her parents and brother in New Haven, Connecticut but nearly catatonic with guilt. Expressing that she doesn't care to be around too many people or talk a lot, the young woman accepts a custodial job at her former high school. Then after an insincere suicide attempt, Rhoda visits the site of vehicular manslaughter and later finds out where the surviving husband and father lives. She knocks at his door, ready to spill her guts but loses her nerve and pretends to be housekeeper offering a free cleaning. The middle-aged man is John Burroughs (William Mapother), a former Yale professor and music composer, but now just a reclusive homebody. He's stuck in a depression, wearing a ski hat all day and practically living on the couch with a drink in his hand. Internally, this is Rhoda's way of atonement for her unforgivable mistake. As Rhoda starts to regularly visit John and clean his house, the two become friends. Meanwhile, as the now-dubbed Earth 2 looms larger and larger in space, Rhoda enters into an essay contest to win a flight to Earth 2. Soon, the guilt-ridden woman and the grief-ridden man find hope in one other, but will the truth about Rhoda come out? And will she be able to reach out to this alternate Earth?
Marling and Cahill find an interesting contrast with their metaphysical premise and the scaled-down, micro-budget aesthetic of their film. The Earth 2 stuff is really a backdrop for a melancholy, emotionally intimate drama about human tragedy, guilt, and redemption. Combining multi-hyphenate Cahill's grainy, handheld cinematography with his at-times too-cool editing, "Another Earth" is never as rawly naturalistic as it thinks it is. But it's still visually haunting, and the cool tones mixed with the dark, nocturnal shots are alluring. From the onset, we feel the full-on impact of the car accident. This is where Cahill doesn't let his editing tricks get in the way as much, pulling the camera back slowly and just letting the crash happen. Same goes with a shot, where Rhoda sits on her mattress on the floor as sunlight beams through the window and dust gently flies in the light.
Though the situation Rhoda enters is contrived, emotions of grief and guilt are unrehearsed and wrenchingly authentic here. The naturally luminous Marling is a revelation (and the film's draw), moving, sympathetic, and thoughtful. Both Rhoda and John, heartbreakingly played by Mapother, are damaged goods just trying to find solace. Their first informal interaction is playing a boxing game on Wii, but after Rhoda and John sleep together and he speaks freely about his tragedy, the tension mounts. Some of the metaphors are handled too literally—like Rhoda "cleaning" to do penance—but "Another Earth" is all about mood, and it will surely change your mood and stay with you after watching it. The very last shot is beautiful in its simplicity but also an enigma that will raise possibilities rather than payoffs.