(This post is an outgrowth of a conversation begun with the wonderful Jeni and Bethany—shout-out to you two!)
Do you love your work? Does love sometimes feel like work? Does work interfere with loving your life? The Anne Hathaway-Jim Sturgess film One Day prompts such questions, particularly if you attend a showing at a work-focused personal moment.
One Day is a love story, but because that story covers twenty years in the lives of Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess), the movie is also necessarily about their careers. The two meet on the day of their college graduation, and meet again most July 15ths thereafter. They’re best friends, with a current of mutual attraction that occasionally surges forth only to be clobbered back by fear or circumstance or plot demands. Emma is a sarcastic, self-deprecating writer whose mad bangs and owlish specs can’t hide her radiance. (Why oh why does dowdy in the movies equal Anne Hathaway with poofy hair? She’d be a knockout with Marge Simpson hair, no?) Dexter, by contrast, is a charismatic, wealthy, dashing ladies’ man. Things come easily to him, which is more of a problem than it first appears, because then what do you do when things start getting hard?
If you have seen any romantic movie ever, you can guess whether or not they eventually get together. Correct: they do not! They each marry elephants. No, that’s Water for Elephants. Maybe. I don’t actually know what Water for Elephants is about because I haven’t read it or seen the movie, because ever since I read this article about elephants I get really sad and worried whenever I think about them. Anyway, yes, love is in the stars here, but stars are really far away. The careers of Emma and Dexter, much like their romantic lives, follow a winding trajectory.
Both characters possess ample talents, and both struggle to find the careers that will put those talents to good use. Emma writes poetry, but she’s got bills to pay. After graduation, she spends a couple years at a goofy Mexican restaurant, in a state of witty despair, while she figures out her next move. She then becomes an English teacher, and, years later, secures a book deal for a YA novel I would totally read. Then… I guess she keeps being a writer but in Paris? The career details drop off after this point, professional success having been achieved, and my attention shifted to her awesome bohemian interior decorating style (typewriters and peeled paint and fresh flowers). But I was fascinated by the film’s depiction of her career, and not just because I was over-relating to the less than stellar parts.
I love that One Day shows Emma in a realistically depressing first job without judging her for it, and that the film has her achieve her dream of being a writer, but in a way that’s different from her initial goal. Although she identifies first as a poet, she eventually switches to writing young adult fiction. She does so not because the market for poetry is approximately twelve lovely weirdos who speak in asterisks (which is also true, but not the point) but because her poetry… maybe isn’t that good after all. But her other stuff is. She finds her voice as a writer unexpectedly, and she’s adaptable enough to know when to let go of one genre in pursuit of another.
One thing that bothered me, however, was that Emma apparently quits teaching after the book deal. Of course, she has every right to do so, and many writers probably want to concentrate on their work as long as they can afford to. But giving up teaching seems to lend credence to the insensitive and wrong-headed comment Dexter makes early in the movie about how “those who can do, and those who can’t…” Emma rightly attacks him for the comment, but I worry that perhaps the film (and/or the author of the novel upon which the film is based) believes that there’s a grain of truth in Dexter’s criticism. And furthermore, I worry that plot lines that dismiss the benefits of teaching contribute to the general cultural devaluation of teachers. Teaching isn’t for people who are unsuccessful; it’s for people who believe that helping others learn is important.
Meanwhile, Dexter’s career moves along a trajectory that’s the reverse to Emma’s. He gets promoted quickly in the entertainment industry, and becomes the host of an obnoxious but popular program for teens—but he doesn’t get to enjoy his success. Drugs and alcohol damage his relationships with friends and family; a newspaper calls him the most annoying man on TV. Eventually, he’s fired—and not a moment too soon, because it’s clear the job is killing his soul day by day. Whereas Emma takes a while to find her footing, but finding it, steps forward surely thereafter, Dexter must essentially begin his career anew. He flounders and meanders before finally finding a job at which he seems content.
Dexter’s career uncertainty doesn’t come with the sense of urgency that would likely be felt by someone without a financial safety net. Although Dexter doesn’t have a steady career for what seems like a long period of time, he’s never in danger of not being able to make rent. His serious girlfriend Sylvie is clearly from a privileged background as well (he meets her family swimming in their home’s indoor pool, and accidentally breaks an expensive Japanese table in their living room). Class makes his situation less desperate. However, professionally and personally, for a long time he’s a disappointment to himself and the people he cares about. Everyone thinks he can be a star, and he becomes one. But being a star doesn’t make him happy, and then one day he is forcibly not a star at all.
Although Dexter struggles for a while, not being a star turns out to be a good thing. His professional storyline involves redefining what success means for him. As his personal life deepens, his career goals become more modest. Once Dexter takes himself out of the professional pressure-cooker, he’s better able to find work that’s both fulfilling and non-destructive.
Although One Day can’t be said to have a happy ending, its portrait of work is ultimately hopeful. It’s also highly relevant in today’s economic landscape, in which jobs are both insecure and hard to come by. The movie reminds us that the future is always uncertain, that when you feel stuck you may actually be moving forward, that endings are beginnings too. As the incomparable Dear Sugar says, “You don’t have a career. You have a life.” And maybe one day, that gets to be enough.