Do not let the fact that there’s a variation on the word “once” in the title fool you, because this is a poor substitute for a romantic musical drama. Well all know that Anne Hathaway can sing. The Oscar on her mantle for her big solo in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is justification that people believe that. Not that she is in any danger of being typecast but as an encore audiences might like to see a film where her vocal talent was on greater display and her character didn’t suffer a historically pre-determined demise 45 minutes in. Instead we find her as the protagonist and love interest to someone in no danger of winning an Oscar anytime soon.
Henry (Ben Rosenfield) apparently never listened to his mother about looking both ways when crossing the street. So when the street busker puts on his headphones and does just that, the dope ends up in a coma. Cue his sister, Franny (Anne Hathaway), to be alerted away from her job overseas. Mom (Mary Steenburgen) wishes she had come home over better circumstances, but home she is to sit at her brother’s bedside.
Among Henry’s belongings is a concert ticket to see his favorite musician, James Forester (blander-than-bland Johnny Flynn). Since her brother won’t be using it anytime soon, she goes to the show for a listen. In one of the most awkward “I’m your biggest fans” moments, Franny goes up to James after the show and tells him that his is in a coma. Despite not being a kid or a beautiful woman, James agrees to go see Henry. Seriously, what else is he going to do?
The drama in Kate Barker-Froyland’s script is some of the most baseline contrivances to be found in sniffy rom-drams. James is planning on going back home. Franny has a PhD to pursue in the third world; an introductory scene that Barker-Froyland hopes will either give her lead character more purpose or a justification for the travel budget. Will Henry come out of the coma before either of them leave? The way it all plays out makes us backtrack through the circumstances that leaves the two hospital visitors spending more time with each other than the guy on life support. Maybe Henry’s last wish secretly was to have his favorite male singer hook up with his only sister and not be psychologically creepy in any matter.
The absence of a genuine heartbeat in the chemistry between James and Franny leaves us to pursue an alternative beat in the soundtrack. Unfortunately it might take a superfan to really adapt oneself into the mindset that Flynn’s compositions are any different from every musician not sold at your nearest Starbucks. We can all be as subjective about music as the next guy, and maybe Glen Hansard’s brand of soulful ballad is not your cup of coffee either. Except there is no denying that there was passion behind his lyrics and particularly his voice. The most pain on display is having to watch Hathaway sheepishly pretend she is not much of a singer as we’re left to remember how much she emoted in her Oscar-winning one shot. One song is just as unique as the next here; which is to say not at all. That is still more than one can say about Song One.