Jim Sturgess, the British-born star of the new romance One Day, which opened yesterday, tried to reassure me that the genre still has meaning for his generation. (He's 30.) "Everybody has their own story of falling in love, or out of love, or being irresponsible with someone else's feelings of love toward you," he said Wednesday on the phone from New York. Charming and self-deprecating, Sturgess was about to board a plane to Los Angeles, to stay for just 24 hours before flying home to London, where his brother is getting married – rather inconveniently for Sturgess's press tour – today.
One Day, based on the bestselling English novel by David Nicholls, tells the story of Emma and Dexter – a feisty Yorkshire girl (Anne Hathaway) and a posh, overprivileged smoothie (Sturgess) – who meet on the day of their graduation from the University of Edinburgh and carry on a will-they-or-won't-they relationship for 20 years. The hook is, we catch up with the characters for only one day a year, so we're continually figuring out where they are in their lives apart and together.
"The fact that everyone's so engrossed in this book and this story proves that romance isn't dead," Sturgess continued. "People really want these two to get together. It's frustrating to see them miss all these opportunities. I think there are plenty of people who are romantic."
There's just one little thing: Sturgess isn't one of them. "I'm crap at romance," he said, chortling. "I've never even been on a date. My girlfriend [the musician Mickey O'Brien]and I met in a pub and got drunk, and we've been together ever since. That was eight years ago. She's sitting in the car next to me now, laughing."
My point exactly: How do you sell a love story – be it a romantic comedy, where the lovers end up together; or a romantic drama, where the love ends – to the hookup generation? Romantic comedies are scrambling to do it by mixing cynicism into the fizziness. Recent examples – What if the protagonists vow not to fall in love ( Friends with Benefits, No Strings Attached)? What if the love-denying hero who's helping a loser to land chicks falls in love himself ( Hitch and Crazy, Stupid, Love)? What if a baby gets in the way ( The Switch, The Back-Up Plan, Life as We Know It)? – have met with mixed success.
Romantic dramas, the sweeping, time-defying, three-hankie sagas in whose company One Day aims to be, are struggling even harder. Romances for the ages, including Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Way We Were, Out of Africa, The English Patient and Titanic, have in common two things that are hard to find in our age of Skype and cyberstalking.
First, all are set against grand backdrops of war, crisis or social upheaval, which give the problems of two little people a poignant context in this crazy world. We've become way too narcissistic for that.
Second, these stories do not end happily. To me, a love that is cut off while it's still ideal, which fills viewers with bittersweet yearning, is much more romantic than one that carries on into the "Oh my God, the dog puked on the duvet and your mother's arriving in five minutes" everyday. But modern-day audience testing does not allow for unhappy endings. The couple must wind up together. The dog must puke. And that's a lot less stirring to watch.
There's another component to the difficultly these days of making romances, but it's one to which Hollywood doesn't like to cop: Because these pictures are currently perceived as "women's films," it can be hard to find a credible male romantic lead, as a lot of actors (and/or their agents) don't want their image "weakened" by being in such movies. Also, in most romances, the woman is cast first and the man must audition with her, and some actors aren't game for that. But Sturgess willingly flew to LA – "It would be impossible to cast those two people without having seen them together in a room," he said – and was full of praise for how "encouraging and engaging" Hathaway was in his reading.
During the rehearsal period, they burned each other mix CDs. (Sturgess is a musician as well as an actor; in fact, he resembles a cuter Paul McCartney.) He gave her "all these northern British bands," the Stone Roses, the Charlatans, Oasis; she tried to get him into Patti Smith, "which didn't quite work."
When the cameras rolled, "Every day was like shooting a new film," he said. "You're in a new year, a different stage in your life, a new situation, with a new hairstyle." And in one scene, a new baby. "That baby hated me," Sturgess said, laughing. "They'd put it in my arms, and it would remember that it hated me, and just scream. That was probably one of the worst days – of the film, and of my life."
Regardless of how well One Day does at the box office, it's sure to boost Sturgess's visibility. He's made "a few films that I've been proud of, but found it hard to reach a more mainstream audience," including Fifty Dead Men Walking, the Canadian co-production directed by Kari Skoglund, and The Way Back, directed by Peter Weir. His two biggest successes so far, the gambling drama 21, in which he played an American student at MIT, and the musical Across the Universe, where he played lovelorn singer Jude, have made him a bit of a heartthrob in the United States, but haven't had much impact on Sturgess's side of the Atlantic.
"I have a normal, regular life in London," he said. "People in England have never even heard of Across the Universe. The distribution was a bit crazy. I think the studio gave up on it; they didn't have the belief that Julie [Taymore, the director]had. They thought, 'The English are so protective of the Beatles, they're not gonna buy into this.' " He laughed. "And yeah, very early on in the film, when you have an American cheerleader singing a Beatles song on an American football court, I'm sure a lot of people switched off right there." ("Football court" – aww.)
The comment Sturgess hears most often is, he said, " 'You look like that American actor from 21.' I say, 'Oh really, who's that?' And they can never remember his name." He snorted. "That's how famous I am – I look a little bit like the guy they can't remember the name of."
Sturgess also joked that, because his Dexter has to be "mean and obnoxious" to sweet Emma for so long, One Day "could be where women turn against me for good. I may have ruined everything." So, not unlike Hollywood, he's hedging his bets. In his next love story – Upside Down, co-starring Kirsten Dunst, and due out next year – he doesn't just search for love through time; he searches through an entire alternate universe. Here's hoping that one still believes in romance.