The Fatal Error of 'One Day'

Anne Hathaway's latest movie succumbs to a trap as old as Shakespeare

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Random House Films

Warning: This post reveals the ending of One Day

The Graduate is a great movie for a lot of reasons: the moody Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, Dustin Hoffman's wry performance as Ben Braddock, the coy flashes of Mrs. Robinson's body. But the film's true moment of triumph is its ending, when Ben rescues Elaine Robinson from what's sure to be a loveless marriage. She in her wedding dress, he in a sweaty polo shirt, they run from the church, board a public bus, and plop down in the back, grinning wildly. Most movies would fade to black right then, with the newly formed couple in their moment of euphoria. But the camera stays rolling for few seconds longer, as their smiles flicker and fade and their faces read pure panic: "What now?"


Those last few moments highlight an near-universal truth about romantic movies: They adore getting a couple together but rarely show what happens after the initial "I love yous" are exchanged. From The Philadelphia Story to When Harry Met Sally to Clueless, most romances end at the first kiss. The reason for Hollywood's dependence on this type of ending is obvious. Seeing a couple get together is a lot more fun than watching them in the messy business of staying together.

Occasionally, however, the story continues even after the leads realize they're meant to be. But even then, the audience doesn't get to see the relationship in action, fights and all. Instead, the writers employ a different technique for dealing with the "What now?" problem: killing off one of the romantic leads. Shakespeare used this device in Romeo and Juliet, bringing the two star-crossed lovers together only to have them each commit suicide. West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein's musical-theater riff on Romeo and Juliet, lets the Juliet character live, but sacrifices the Romeo to gang violence. Love Story, about an upper-crusty Harvard man who falls for a working-class girl, does the opposite: The male protagonist survives, while the female dies of cancer. A handful of more recent films offer variations on the theme, with more dubious results: Sliding Doors, A Walk to Remember, City of Angels, Cold Mountain.

One Day, an Anne Hathaway-starring romantic drama that came out last week, features the latest and laziest use of the kill-off-the-character solution. The film's two protagonists, Emma and Dexter, spend the first part of the movie in a protracted will-they-or-won't-they dance. She's smitten with him; he admires her, but—in typical twentysomething male fashion—spends his youth chasing fame, booze, and beautiful women rather than settling down with his soul mate. When they finally do get together, there's a moment of hope: This could turn into the rare movie that explores the joys and challenges of committed monogamy, that doesn't derive all its tension from the will-they-or-won't-they question.

But alas, rather than showing Emma and Dexter grow into maturity together, wrestling with infertility and their own aging bodies, One Day puts Emma on a bicycle and runs her over with a truck. Dexter spends the rest of the movie mourning his lost wife, instead of going about the tricky task of living with her after years of foreplay. Just like the movies that close with a confession of love, One Day's ending allows the romance to remain forever in its early, giddy perfection, submitting to The Who's wish in "My Generation": "I hope I die before I get old."

One Day's ending is especially frustrating because we'd finally started to see a movement away from movies that only show the early stages of a relationship. In the decades since The Graduate needled Hollywood for its fierce loyalty to happy endings, several fine films have come out that begin, rather than end, with a couple getting together: Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, (500) Days of Summer, and Blue Valentine all showcase romances that move from infatuation to love to boredom to frustration to, occasionally, renewed tenderness. Yes, One Day is based on David Nicholls's novel, so its ending was predestined. But that doesn't mute the disappointment of watching yet another romantic movie avoid telling a true love story.

Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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