In One Day, the new film based on the British sleeper hit novel, there is a moment on a beach in which our heroine (Anne Hathaway) notices her old friend Dexter’s brand new ankle tattoo for the first time.
“Looks like a road sign,” she tells him.
“It’s a yin-yang,” he says, with mild indignation (the year is 1992), “a perfect marriage of opposites.”
“It means put some socks on,” she says coolly.
The dialogue above is actually taken from the novel, which I finally read this week after seeing the film – not something I’d recommend unless you don’t mind echoes of Hathaway’s blinding teeth and spotty Yorkshire accent dancing through what is, all things considered, a sweet and compelling work of commercial British fiction.
The novel (by David Nicholls, also the film's screenwriter) was a phenomenon – one of those simple concepts that captured the imagination of the broadest possible audience without being gimmicky or contrived. The story takes place on the same date – July 15 – over a series of years, beginning with the day the lovers meet at university and running through to the end of their romance a couple of decades later.
It’s a charming literary device, but one that doesn’t translate interestingly to film, primarily because flicking through time in nimble leaps is the way most cinematic narratives unfold anyway. As a result, the magic of the book’s time travel is lost (or at least rendered effectively invisible). Not that this will matter much to diehard fans of the novel.
This weekend, countless boyfriends, husbands and sight-unseen Internet suitors will be dragged (or perhaps even sexually entreated) to the theatre to see One Day for one reason alone: the yin-yang effect. By this, I don’t mean the aforementioned tattoo, but the promise of watching an agonized courtship that culminates in a perfect marriage of opposites. This age-old story, colloquially known as The Search for the One, Who You Think is a Different One, But is Actually the One Right Under Your Nose, has been Hollywood’s fail-safe romantic narrative staple since Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert strung a sheet across the motel room in It Happened One Night.
The major romantic comedies on offer this summer all rely, in their separate ways, on this basic conceit. In Crazy, Stupid, Love, we have Steve Carell fumbling his way back to his high-school sweetheart by clumsily bedding a truckload of bar totty, under the tutelage of (an occasionally shirtless!) Ryan Gosling. Similarly, Friends With Benefits features an emotionally alienated couple on the rebound – played by Justin Timberlake and the creepy hot chick from Black Swan – who decide to have meaningless sex and end up (yup) falling in love as a result.
It’s a sweet story isn’t it? The one in which the person who seems so wrong for you at first – the one who bores you, or ignores you, or beds you without affection or emotion – ends up being The One in spite of all signs to the contrary.
But here’s the problem, boys and girls: It’s also a load of nonsense. Surely I’m not the first one to tell you this, but in light of the success of One Day, I thought we could all use a healthy reminder. The reason Hollywood keeps returning to the yin-yang narrative is simple: It’s convenient.
Pause to consider the facts. In life, when you have a bad relationship, it may well go on and on, but when it does end (and I guarantee you this, it will end), it tends to end painfully. When you do meet The One (if you believe in that sort of thing, and I certainly don’t – then again ask me half-way through my second glass of decent champagne), they will likely appear out of the ether – a new person with a new world of lessons to teach you.
Sadly though, new people aren’t convenient for the purposes of a Hollywood screenplay – at least not in the third act. No, in the movies, the two main characters must be staunchly in place from page one. They will reject each other off the bat, make silly assumptions, behave badly, and ideally be diametrically opposed in character, with one (usually the woman) in desperate need of a makeover.
Of course, in real life, when you see a friend in a state of agonized ambivalence, you know she’s just in a bad relationship. But when a character in a movie agonizes, it usually means they are moving toward a perfect marriage of opposites (a.k.a. a blissful, box-office-friendly resolution). As Times columnist Caitlin Moran has observed, in real life “you can always tell when a woman is with the wrong man, because she has so much to say about the fact that nothing’s happening. When a woman finds the right person, on the other hand, she just … disappears for six months and then resurfaces, eyes shiny, and usually about six pounds heavier.”
In the era of digital dating (a boon for star-crossed lovers, if ever there was one), the persistence of the yin-yang narrative feels, to me, increasingly outdated and convenient. While others might continue to pursue the cheesy nineties tattoo approach to love, I’d rather just get on with real life. And by that I mean, put some socks on.