'The One I Love' is a witty and delightful twist on the domestic dramedy
The One I Love RADiUS-TWC
Director: Charlie McDowell
Screenplay: Justin Lader
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass and Ted Danson
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Critic's Note: Much of the film's PR and marketing have centered around not revealing the supposed "twist." Well, that "twist" occurs 13 minutes into the film, and it is the entire premise. There aren't many ways to talk about The One I Love without addressing what it's actually about. Attempts to do so would, inevitably, be needlessly vague. I would suggest going into the movie knowing as little as possible. In any case, to the extent that revealing first-act information constitutes a spoiler, consider this your spoiler warning.
It's been a banner year for doubles and doppelgängers, copies and impostors. The loopy absurdism of the dueling Jesse Eisenbergs in the Dostoevsky adaptation The Double. The existential dread of Denis Villeneuve's Enemy (double Gyllenhaal!). The hallucinatory animation of the co-opted identities in Ari Folman's The Congress. And that's not to mention the B-movie likes of The Machine and Almost Human.
Now comes Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, the movie with the plot secret that shouldn't really be a secret, and which finds itself in the same company as a number of other films tackling vaguely similar territory. In fact, it bears its closest resemblance to another low-budget indie from this summer, James Ward Byrkit's terrific Coherence, which used a cosmic event to unleash an endless loop of identical houses and identical guests, with various versions from one reality intermingling with various versions from all the others.
The One I Love isn't quite so complex, but it does occupy some similar space. In this case, there's only one set of doubles - but their presence is just as baffling to Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) as they were to the partygoers in Coherence. Sophie and Ethan have been sent away to a vacation home in the country by their marriage counselor (Ted Danson), who insists that the weekend trip is just what they need to reinvigorate their relationship. He tells them that all the couples he's sent there have come back virtually reborn.
The retreat begins innocuously enough, but by the first night, they're getting along like a young couple again. They find themselves in the guest house - around the corner from the main house, right next to a swimming pool - and have a great, carefree night together. They smoke some pot, they have dinner, they have sex. Maybe they even sneak in a game of ping pong (I can't remember for sure if this happens, but it rings a bell).
And then Sophie goes into the main house to find her husband - whom she just left in the guest house moments earlier - dozing on the couch, with no memory of any of the great night the two just had together. She, naturally, assumes he's lying and that he's playing a joke on her and taking it way too far. No longer welcome in the bedroom, he heads out to sleep in the guest house. And when he wakes up? There's his wife, cheerful and calm, cooking him a bacon-and-egg breakfast, with hardly a thought about the previous evening's fight.
After a hefty dose of confusion and negotiation between the two, followed by the inevitable attempt to reconcile the implications of what's happening, Sophie and Ethan come to the conclusion that the guest house is, for all intents and purpose, a portal into a sort of alternate dimension where they come face to face with duplicate versions of themselves. The only catch is, it only works when one person enters the guest house at a time. Both Sophies and both Ethans will not all be present at once.
But when Sophie goes in alone, Ethan - or Ethan 2 - will be merrily waiting for her, and vice versa.
With the situation clear - or at least as clear as it can be - the two set some ground rules. They'll go into the guest house, one at a time, but won't stay for more than 15 minutes. No intimacy, no sleeping over. They're just dipping their toes in is all.
And so the fun begins. And it is quite a bit of fun. McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader take the premise in inventive directions, while keeping explanations to a minimum, and as enigmatic and ambiguous as possible (just the way I like 'em). What we notice right off the bat is that the versions of Ethan and Sophie that pop into existence in the guest house are new-and-improved versions, at least from the perspectives of their significant other. Ethan 2 uses contacts instead of his glasses, wears tousled hair, walks around in his bare feet all day and has a sudden interest in art. His personality is fundamentally the same, but suddenly Sophie sees him in all the ways she has secretly wanted.
Meanwhile, Sophie 2 is almost like a '50s TV housewife - wavy hair perfectly in place, a docile smile as she makes him breakfast and lets him do whatever he wants, and a complete lack of interest in challenging him about his recent indiscretion (which is what spurred the counseling in the first place)
These perfected versions seemingly only exist in the guest house. They always resist any invitations to go outside. (I was reminded of Shoeless Joe in Field of Dreams, looking down at the gravel bordering the baseball diamond, unable to cross it.) But that doesn't stop the real Sophie and the real Ethan from taking their doubles' presence a lot farther and a lot more seriously than they initially agreed.
For her, she finds in Ethan 2 the emotional openness she has to scratch and claw for with the real version of her husband. Ethan, on the other hand, quickly becomes disinterested in Sophie 2, and instead becomes paranoid and jealous of Ethan 2. ("You don't know what he's like," Sophie argues. "You've never even met him.") The guest house, as magical as it appears to be at first - and as great a track record as Dr. Ted Danson insists it has - forces the two to confront the frailties of their relationship, and their own problematic expectations and behaviors. Whatever these alternate versions are - idealized projections, hallucinations, or very, very convincing impostors - they reveal much more about the state of Sophie and Ethan's relationship than any therapy session ever has.
The premise also gives both actors a lot to work with, and they play off each other nicely. Moss is always great, and she shares an easy chemistry with Duplass. This may be my favorite performance of his, in fact. (It's great to see him in a lead role, if for no other reason than it means he's not directing it.)
McDowell, in his feature debut, has a nice command over what tone he's going for. He could have made it feel overly cute, or treated the premise as ultimately harmless. Instead, he allows a palpable unease to take up residence. I'm particularly fond of the jittery musical accompaniment by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, which reminded me of Jonny Greenwood's work with P.T. Anderson, not only sonically, but in the way it disrupts the natural rhythms and emotional beats of the story.
The One I Love is ultimately pretty thin, but it's a consistently engaging experiment, as funny as it is playful. It may not exactly plumb the depths of these two characters, but the premise itself is exploited for enough clever insights and bizarre possibilities to make it worth all the effort.