Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are fizzling out. To get the marriage back on track, they’ve been trying to recreate some of the best moments from their past (like the time they crashed a stranger’s pool and got caught), but even these rehearsed dates don’t turn out (the stranger isn’t home this time, leaving them floating in the pool looking at the windows of the house they’re hoping to again flee from).
Their therapist (Ted Danson) recommends they stop reliving the past and start creating their future. He recommends a weekend trip to a gorgeous, remote rental property – a chance to get away from it all and fall in love again. “I’ve sent a lot of couples there, they all come back ‘renewed’.” So they go to the home, a freeing, utopic space, and feel the effects immediately. With wine and an outdoor fire, they have more room than they know what to do with – the perfect set-up to explore their possible selves, literally.
“The One I Love” is a crowd-pleaser from Sundance, and the debut feature from director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader. Like most debuts that do well at Sundance, this is likely to be a talked-up gem during the eventual limited theatrical release, and a solid performer on VOD once word truly gets out. Also like a lot of debut features these days, McDowell’s film starts in one place but jumps the tracks into completely unexpected territory. The filmmakers are positioning the film so that the audience goes in blind, so we’ll instead have to dance around the finer details of the plot. Know that as Ethan and Sophie begin to grow closer together for the first time in a long time, their weekend vacation becomes more surreal then they ever anticipated.
The Duplass Brothers effect (Jay and Mark both produced the film) seems to have leaked into McDowell’s film, as “The One I Love” is very much to low-key sci-fi what “Baghead” was to horror. Mark Duplass (“Safety Not Guarenteed”) is doing some of his best work here, performing with a Rolodex of personalities and emotions as his relationship with Sophie goes through a mini-crisis in just a few days. Moss, who will finally be moving on from her time as Peggy on “Mad Men,” similarly shows off a nice spectrum of possible selves, and is most impressive when squaring off with a bizarre enemy over a bottle of wine in the third act.
Screenwriter Lader finds a remarkably strong voice in his first feature (in terms of dialogue, at least, more on plot later). Ethan and Sophie work, and are so entertaining, because they are going through the very real stages of a failing relationship while still servicing the comedy of the screenplay.
They haven’t changed, but their perspectives have. When Ethan married Sophie, he would have likely called her a free spirit, and she would delight in sharing how hilariously sarcastic he is. Today, in marriage counseling, his sarcasm has become “stubbornness;” and her free nature, “gullibility.” Their falling out of love has warped the meaning of the very words. Ethan cries, “I used to be able to call you a bitch…and it was funny!”
The house is more than a location to Ethan and Sophie, it’s a symbol – an interanimated beacon of hope for reconciliation, truces, and second (or third, or fourth) chances. And the house holds all these things for the couple, but not in the ways that they were expecting. They experience some of that freedom that fills one when travelling, but before long they become comfortable in each other’s company again and the fights start. Duplass and Moss are totally believable as an on-the-way-out couple. Their little skirmishes begin with excessive niceness in an attempt to avoid the very fight they end up prompting with a tinge of condescension and in no time they’re at each other’s throats.
“The One I Love” does a lot of teasing of typical romances in which characters become the “best” versions of themselves and walk away into the sunset by the time it’s over. Lader’s writing is designed to brilliantly play with the idea of a relationship and all of its facets: wants, desires, cheating, love. He weaves in a surreal twist that allows him to examine these characters in a completely original light, but then directs that originally unique twist into an unimpressive, conventional one-two punch at the very end.
At the last minute, “The One I Love” arrives at several of “the moments” that accompany this brand of science fiction device (the one I’m avoiding spoiling). When it comes time to seal the deal, the film gives us scenes so popular they can be found in an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants.” Ending on a strong note seems to be a common problem with new filmmakers, but it’s not a crippling problem, and not one that will stop me from recommending the film. What Lader and McDowell manage is to view a relationship in a new way, and, regardless of those last-minute use of genre conventions, that’ll ensure the film performs well upon its eventual arrival to Netflix.
August 15, 2014 (limited)
1 hr. 31 min.
Comedy, Romance, Sci-Fi
Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ted Danson