The day in "One Day" is July 15.
The first one is 1988, college graduation day. Adulthood beckons, or looms, depending on how you look at it. Much alcohol is consumed.
Emma (Anne Hathaway), at her age, seems a bit frumpy -- rimless glass frames, shapeless dresses not a whole lot more flattering than a flour sack. To understate the case somewhat, she doesn't go through the world signaling for sexual companionship. Dexter (Jim Sturgess) is a bit more slick, though still doofus enough in his post-grad way.
They fall into bed together late that night but, given the excess and the exhaustion, they vow to leave it at just sleeping together, letting the proximity of depleted intimacy speak for itself.
The rest of "One Day" follows the next couple of decades of July 15ths for the two. And, of course, we in the audience refuse in our cliche-addled sagacity to subscribe to the "just friends" rubbish.
But then we've been spending far too much time at romantic comedies whose cumulative IQ probably equals that of a summer squash. This movie was based on a novel and was adapted for the screen by the novelist David Nicholls. (He was, in fact, a screenwriter and TV writer until the movies mucked up one too many of his stories and he turned to the novel for writerly solace and freedom.)
It was directed by Lone Sherfig, the Danish Dogme 95 alumna who previously gave us the wildly promising "An Education" starring a larval (at the time) Carey Mulligan. She has since grown up to be an impressive and much-praised film presence.
It is the beauty of "One Day" that while your instincts may be sound about this "just friends" relationship, you haven't begun to imagine all the different side roads and life curlicues that their friendship takes as they do everything possible to spend the next two decades of July 15ths together.
This is a writer's movie. People are suddenly forced to explain their humble abodes to those less humbly situated and answer the question "what's that smell?" with the reply "onions and disappointment."
The two make the kind of relationship rules sensible, witty people might make. "No nudity," for one, "no Scrabble" for another.
While I defer to no one in my adoration of Hathaway on screen, what most impressed me about "One Day" is its utter fearlessness in painting an unremitting portrait of a media jackass, British broadcasting division. The male half of this friendship gets a job as a "presenter" on British television. (Emcee across the pond.) This guy spends all-too-many years as a champion media yutz.
Emma, meanwhile, struggles for quite awhile. She's a self-deprecating waitress in a Mexican joint who meets a future third-rate stand-up comic there. "My hair smells of cheese," she observes to no one in particular. "Monterrey Jack."
Waitress and apprentice comic become a couple for a while, as Dexter shags all manner of women and is famous and making money hand over fist.
Undoubtedly, though, everyone who knows him has noticed that he's a bit of a coke-sniffing jerk. His mother, dying of cancer (Patricia Clarkson, much experienced in fatal diseases after "Pieces of April"), observes to her son, "you're not very nice anymore."
She still loves her son, of course, but a jerk is a jerk is a jerk, as Gertrude Stein might have said, and our boy is it. Even the British tabloids have taken to running front page pieces calling him "the most annoying man on the telly."
He's incapable of having a date with his old girl pal without disappearing into a bathroom for a coke snort and a touchy-feely flirtation with a female fan on the way back to the table.
I must say that is, far and away, my favorite part of "One Day" -- it's novel-led portrait of human character at its seediest and neediest.
Time, though, marches on in yearly increments. She melds from waitress into teacher and then into writer. His nation-conquering asininity is over by 32, by which time circumstances dictate a tough remedial course in being a human being again.
July 15ths come and go. And eventually, what we've all been waiting for happens -- the pairing off of two people whose partnership has been everyone's expectation since the movie's opening credits rolled.
But even there, this tale has some more smacking around of the audience to do, novel-style, which makes any bit of facial mist it draws as honest as can be (in that sense, a bit like "The Help," which also earns every tear, however abundant).
It's not as shameless a tear-jerker as "The Help," but as romantic melodramas go, this one is good in every way, which means bad in no way whatsoever.
It's witty, smart and punctiliously observant about people worth observing. And by the time it starts manipulating you, it has earned the right several times over.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarkson, Jodie Whittaker
DIRECTOR: Lone Scherfig
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity, language, some violence and substance abuse.
THE LOWDOWN: A couple of decades in the life of a male/female friendship that begins in college and endures the storms of adulthood..