Surreal 'The One I Love' Imagines a New World for Romantic Comedies
Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss show their collective range in the imaginative indie.
The One I Love has two great performances. One by Mark Duplass, vying for the top of the comedic leading man heap, and one by Elisabeth Moss, the Mad Men starlet who more than keeps up with her chatterbox onscreen hubby in her first real lead actress role. Great performances and a script that turns a totally conventional idea into something new and exciting make The One I Love one of the most thoughtful relationship movies in recent memory.
[Note: The rest of this review will spoil the film's main reveal, which happens early on in the story.]
The One I Love is a surrealist romance. It begins in couples therapy. A doctor (Ted Danson) listens to Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie (Moss) talk about how they're falling out of love and trying desperate measures to rekindle the flame. The doc prescribes a weekend retreat to "renew" themselves and "reset the reset button."
Meanwhile director Charlie McDowell somehow makes the film feel like a horror movie. Maybe it's the weekend getaway at a mystery house. Maybe it's the heavy strings that punctuate the serene setting. Whatever it is the film builds anticipation. McDowell isn't subtle hinting that there's something more to this story.
When Ethan and Sophie arrive at their country home getaway and guest house they discover versions of themselves are already there. Sophie has sex with the other Ethan by mistake and the original Ethan has no idea what she's talking about when she brings it up. The film stumbles a bit introducing the idea as we wait around for the couple (especially Sophie) to realize what's going on. But the story turns in a particularly impressive scene where Ethan breaks it down. "We had two completely separate experiences with each other that neither one of us remembers."
The One I Love's script, by newcomer Justin Lader, deftly maneuvers its center premise. By focusing on Ethan's point of view, the film keeps things as simple as possible as we watch two versions of two different people interact. Credit Duplass and Moss also as they each give their two characters individual personalities that are easy to distinguish. The real Ethan wears glasses but he's also the polar opposite of his doppelganger, who doesn't comb his hair and is exciting in all the ways Ethan used to be. The new Sophie is an amiable housewife, cooking Ethan bacon (which the original Sophie never does) and remaining content to sit around the house while he investigates this insane scenario.
How does it happen? Is it a hallucination? Ethan and Sophie get stoned their first night, but that can't be it. The mystery is the film's great achievement since the how is what matters to us and not the why. The how reveals a crumbling relationship as Ethan watches his wife fall in love with himself, but a better version of himself. It's a clever way to investigate an age-old literary and cinematic trope, one that marries the worlds of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Twilight Zone, both of which are referenced knowingly by Ethan in the movie.
But the film isn't all relationship musings. It has moments of real humor, led by Duplass, who is already one of the best "relationship" actors around (Your Sister's Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed). There's a Seinfeldian sitcom feeling to the goings on as well as the characters bounce back and forth between the house and guest house, popping in and out of doors like Jerry and Kramer. But Sophie thinks what's happening is "magical" and the two debate just leaving, but she wants to stay "to explore it further" and "help the relationship." You can probably see where things are headed.
While the film's ending chooses to offer a sci-fi explanation for the appearance of the doppelgangers instead of leaving it a mystery, it still works on a couple different levels. It would've been more impactful to wonder about the appearances of the doubles as figments, or wishes, of Ethan and Sophie's imaginations, but The One I Love still manages to get across its themes of how love fades and how people cling to relationships built on memories instead of reality. Dramatically, the film can't touch the work of P.T. Anderson or Michel Gondry, comparisons it invites with its surreal romantic premise and Jonny Greenwood-lite soundtrack, but it's an inventive movie made entirely possible by the talented actors within.