Struggling to keep their marriage alive, a young couple (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) decide to escape for the weekend in an attempt to better themselves. But an unusual dilemma awaits them.
Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are stuck in a marriage that’s lost its mojo. Part of the problem – and it seems insurmountable - is infidelity. Ethan is the cheater. He’s apologised. Actually, more accurately, he’s in that special purgatory, known to marital transgressors of all sexes everywhere, where it is certain that he will never be able to stop apologising because no apology is ever enough to heal that wound. As for Sophie, well she resents his resentment. From her high ground her aims for the marriage are loftier than pursuing the guilty to claim victory. She desires to hold onto the glimmer of excitement and interest that brought them together. But she can’t grasp what that might be. Ethan just wants it all back the way it was. Especially the sex part.
So The One I Love plunges us straight into the moment where this pair are trying to reset the reset button. In the first scene Sophie explains to their shrink, Ted Danson, that they’ve tried recapturing the magic: like the time early in their relationship where they snuck into a neighbour’s pool for a night swim. When it happened first time it was secret, reckless fun, a partners in crime thing to do. Sophie tells Danson that they’ve tried to re-live that moment, but somehow it didn’t work: it only made things sadder. Danson’s look of bewildered sympathy in the face of ‘staged spontaneity’ tells us what to think of this pair: they’re romantic road kill (his anonymous shrink is awesomely funny.) For me it’s the movie's best bit and a bad sign that it comes within the movie's first five minutes, a high point that is never topped.
If this marriage can be revived they’re going to need more than conventional therapy. Danson sends them off on their own to a secluded couples retreat. It’s the chance, he’s says, for them to re-discover each other. The weekender is beautiful: its all airy, woody, well appointed rustic charm, built for romance. Ethan and Sophie aren’t there long before things get weird.
The One I Love is one of those pictures that’s impossible to review without giving too much of the game away and the game here is a tricky plot. But, and here’s the downside, once those game rules are set you aren’t left with much else but plot. Which is a pity since there’s alot here to enjoy. Anyway here goes: let’s just say that Ethan gets to spend time with a version of Sophie that’s close to the woman he fell in love with; a bacon cooking gal with easy charm. Meanwhile Sophie discovers a shaggier, free-form version of Ethan, the kind of guy she would rather spend time with than the man she knows as her husband.
What follows is a story of doppelgängers, sex, betrayal, mixed messages, secrets, and a lot of confusion, running about and more hasty exits than a French farce (there are a lot of doors here). How all this makes a sort of sense might involve a parallel universe. Or it could be like The Stepford Wives (1975)? Let’s just say there is a punchline here that resolves those questions.
But I’m left with the feeling that The One I Love might have been better off with more mystery and fewer answers. Meanwhile, and here’s the kicker, its tantalising premise – an inventory of the ways marriage can get lost in a time/space warp of false ideals – loses shape amidst the trickery.
It’s a film about measuring the distance between thought and reality, authentic feeling and impulse, disappointment and self-scrutiny, the fresh scent of a promise and its stale end zone; that is, its Virginia Woolf without the bark or the bite. I’ve read that director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader like the Twilight Zone and Charlie Kaufman. That much is obvious but their fondness hasn’t translated into something exciting. In Kaufman’s scripts, especially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Adaptation (2002) we get lost in the plot willingly. We’re at the mercy of the same fierce contradictions that propel his characters. The Twilight Zone could hold hostage to plausibility because – at its best – the pay-off was drawn from its own superbly constructed internal logic. The One I Love can’t boast these virtues. Still, it does have Moss and Duplass and they’re great assets: funny, poignant and versatile, making the most of the rich under-done material and selling the films batty set-up for all its worth.
According to the trades Lader turned in a script that didn’t have the dialogue complete. What’s here in the final cut has emerged, by all accounts, from rehearsals with considerable contributions from Moss and Duplass. Each scene flows, and its alive with chance, and a lived in quality: but right now I can’t think of one line that’s left a lingering disquiet or snap of recognition. The best scenes are those few moments of silent tenderness; like the bit where Sophie finally hears what she needs to from Ethan. Or, his humble, quiet acquiescence to the fact that, yes, he’s an arsehole.
Cinematographer Doug Emmett coats the action in a late afternoon glow of honeyed light and his camera always seems to find a new nook to explore; McDowell keeps the thing moving and untangled, which is really saying something since the whole thing is just two people talking in one nicely appointed room or another, with the occasional adjournment to a perfectly manicured lawn. Still, McDowell doesn’t seem interested or inclined to explore the rom-com style beyond a sort of dogged realism (maybe he thought the whole thing was crazy enough without turning up the comic heat and letting some mania in?) Or to put it another way its proof positive of how really good Moss and Duplass are here once you realise that in terms of technique that haven’t been asked much more than to re-act deadpan and endure ever so long pauses no matter how stupid it all gets.