Warning: This review discloses the film’s central conceit which is being kept under wraps in the marketing
What if the need to recreate, repeat, or reset the good ol’ days of a relationship were replaced with the option of idealized perfection? Recognizable but tweaked, this is everything you’ve ever wanted from the person you love. But then you have to walk out of guest house paradise and talk to your actual significant other, facing that slump of disappointment. That’s what Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) grapples with in the Charlie Kaufman-lite The One I Love, a flimsy but highly amusing ‘what if’ relationship fantasy, anchored by the flummoxed curiosity of Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass.
While Sophie (Moss) and Ethan (Duplass) attempt to salvage their marriage through couples therapy (the therapist is played by Ted Danson in a cameo appearance; he is the only other person to appear in the film), they are sent to an isolated retreat for the weekend guaranteed they’ll return with a new lease on each other. They soon discover the guest house, which, when entered one at a time, contains alternates of each other; versions of themselves considerably more desirable than the real thing. Yes indeed, it’s yet another 2014 film with doppelgangers.
Alternate Sophie is like a casual Stepford wife; accommodating, cooker of bacon, docile, and even more comfortable with herself. Ethan sees Alternate Sophie not as a temptation (seriously, not even once, which somewhat problematically turns the film into Ethan vs. the world) but as a curiosity. Alternate Ethan poses the real threat. Sophie is entranced by him. He’s “20% cooler”, but also more charming, wittier, flirtatious, and articulate. In an early encounter, Sophie walks in to see a portrait Alternate Ethan has made of her and she doesn’t like it. But it doesn’t matter. She is attracted to the earnestness of the attempt and his subsequent ability to quip and make light-hearted jabs about the end result.
Sophie insists in seeing the weekend through as a trust exercise for each, but it’s clearly more than that for her. This new abstract confusion takes them to the next step, beyond misguided attempts at reclaiming the opening stage of a relationship. They are introduced to a literal newness of each other. As Sophie gradually turns her back on Ethan for something that seems to be better than what’s in front of her, he slips further into hapless habits of paranoia and wounded male pride that only serve his concerns. He sees what is happening, but not why it is happening.
The One I Love is pleasantly diverting. That it, at times, feels like a rough cut (in screenplay, direction, and edits) can only derail it to a point. The script has a tendency to work against its potential by rushing to repetitive surface developments instead of exploring what happens when couples lose the ability to exist in the long-term. Disappointments crop up, and spark dissipates, replaced by a habit of looking to the past instead of the future. Writer Justin Lader understads this (look at the first scene), and despite a reluctance to get into the metaphysical meat of his delightfully bizarre premise, he does a commendable job addressing what we look for in our significant others.
But this is truly anchored by the two (well, really four) gamely loose performances by Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass. With the improvisational spin that goes hand-in-hand with Duplass Brothers Productions, the two playfully spar off each other in a chess game of different combinations, full of rebuffs and by turns clueless, hesitant, renewed, and searching. And that doesn’t even cover work as the doppelgangers.
Another wild turn in the third act triumphs by testing the dark undercurrents of its conceit, but it walks hand-in-hand with half explanations and conceptual rot. Answers are kind of discovered, and they make zero sense, even within this cinematic space, and it unnecessarily complicates a world where explanation doesn’t belong. It’s as if Phil in Groundhog Day discovered a conspiratorial cause for his never-ending loop of a day. If it had a semblance of impact it’d be creepy. But mainly it distracts from the low-fi deconstruction of relationships that it sets out to be.
Charlie Kaufman was mentioned at the outset, and he seems to be a natural reference and/or selling point for the film. There is a tendency in indies of the Kaufman ilk to conclude on a note of unsettling entrapment. As a whole, The One I Love suffers from a similar effect, but it has a light-on-its-feet quality and enough insight to satisfy much more than it probably should.