by Kathie Smith
You could make quite a film series out of the comedies that employ pop psychology as a driving force for romantic conflict-resolution, but the returns on such a series would likely suck the life out of its audience with an overload of banality and schmaltz. Sure, Say Anything and There’s Something About Mary are great, but imagine seeing them with Pretty Woman, The Wedding Singer, You’ve Got Mail and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Formula, even with the best rom-coms, rules the day. All the more reason to applaud The One I Love, the first feature from Charlie McDowell, for starting conventionally on the same path of predictability and slowly pulling back a curtain on a surreal landscape that is rarely seen in boy-meets-girl narratives. Pioneering new territory in its genre, The One I Love also narrows the need for preview critical assessment and is best approached without spoilers or hints, found in the trailer and this review. (Stop here, go see the movie, and then continue reading.)
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Charlie McDowell
Producer: Mel Eslyn
Writer: Justin Lader
Cinematographer: Doug Emmett
Editor: Jennifer Lilly
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Cast: Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ted Danson
Premiere: January 21, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 22, 2014
US Distributor: RADiUS-TWC
Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are a married couple verging on irreconcilable differences who are struggling with their quarrels and hope, despite the odds, to return to the ambience of boy-meets-girl. In an attempt to reignite the fire, as they explain to their therapist (Ted Danson), they reenact their first date and their collective compulsion spurned by newfound love—breaking into a backyard for an illicit nighttime swim only to be caught in the act. Or at least, that’s what happened originally. The second time around, feigning amorous impulse, they jump in the pool with the purpose of being caught only to find an absence of passion as well as an unoccupied house that made their role-playing so titillating. Told in flashback, the look of disappointment on their faces as no one emerges from the house to scold them or call the cops offers a perfect portrait of their compounded disaffection.
Their therapist, in typically patronizing fashion, gets up, grabs a brochure, and suggests a private retreat where they can relax and renew their relationship. The One I Love establishes a cache of counseling jargon early—compatibility exercises, trust activities, trying new things, reset the reset button—phrases that take on new meaning as they arrive at the expansive retreat home and open a door to what seems to be another dimension. In the estate’s guesthouse they discover alternate versions of each other—so when Sophie enters she finds and nearly identical Ethan and when Ethan enters he finds another version of Sophie—setting up a strange playground for them to explore a different impression of the person they married. The mirror image of Ethan is a less defensive, more fun loving husband, and the new Sophie is more accommodating and less combative. And while they collectively decide to explore this unnatural and unexplainable phenomenon of doppelgangers (with ground rules, of course), subtle seismic shifts in emotions undulate with a capricious verve, carrying the story to places beyond reason.
The One I Love has aces in Moss, Duplass, and screenwriter Justin Lader, but its trump card is its gleeful ability to rewrite the rules at the drop of a hat. With the exception of Danson’s brief appearance in the first five minutes, McDowell and Lader craft a two-person, four-character chamber dramedy. The story may adopt a light, devil-may-care mode of operation, but it works in tandem with a tight script of organic dialogue delivered with unsuspecting aplomb from the leads in dual roles. This is most keenly felt in Moss’s fantastic performance of Sophie 1 and Sophie 2, carefully shifting between playful and sternly earnest to superficial and quietly vicious. Ethan and Sophie are not people you feel like you know but more like a couple, including their twilight zone twins, you have met at a party—or people that might be interesting at arm’s length.
The rich and fantastical finale lends itself to parables of self-examination. How do we know the people we love? What defines us individuals? How do we measure the strength and fragility of our happiness? Although those questions seem to add up to some grand posturing, The One I Love maintains a humorous tone without being ironic or cheeky—a delicate balance considering the cast (Duplass in particular) and off-the-wall plot (never being heavy-handed with farce). Without being an expert in the genre (by a long shot), it’s easy to herald The One I Love as one of the most ingenious romantic comedies to come around in some time. To use a funny simile from Ethan, who openly states the director’s intentions of turning labels and anticipation upside down, The One I Love takes great pleasure in delivering a weird yet enjoyable version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Some creative minds have thankfully muscled in on some pretty bland territory and proven that there are other roads in the land of rom-com to take other than fatuous and saccharine.