A Lot to Like in ‘The One I Love’

I’ll say one thing for Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader, the director and writer respectively of the film The One I Love—they’ve got guts. Who would ever think that creating another movie about another couple suffering another boring marriage would be worth the time and effort?

And I’ll say something else, too—miraculously, they pull it off. This low budget, low-key indie turns out to be an intriguing, even beguiling, mood piece that manages to keep you interested from start to finish.

Of course, to achieve such a victory they do resort to a few tricks and employ a lot of cinematic sleight-of-hand, but even that’s not a complaint. There’s really only one way this delicate bit of chicanery could have ever worked, and McDowell and Lader walk that path with skill and verve.

Mark Duplass (cast member of “The Mindy Project” and the film’s co-executive producer) and Elisabeth (“Mad Men”) Moss are a Los Angeles couple trying desperately to rekindle the excitement of their early married years. Ethan (Duplass) has even strayed off the reservation, which has landed them both on the therapeutic couch of Ted Danson. He suggests a private weekend retreat, which, he assures them, has worked wonders for several of his other clients in a similar sinking boat.

Ethan and Sophie head to a private compound with a gorgeous house, a few outbuildings, and a lovely pool, high in the hills overlooking a stunning vista. The weekend will be a chance to rebuild their relationship, away from city cares and relaxing all by themselves.

Or are they?

Caution: Plot Twist Ahead

Okay, here comes the requisite *SPOILER ALERT*.

Don’t hate me. It would be impossible to talk about this movie without wading into spoiler territory and, besides, the twist of The One I Love is revealed 15 minutes into the film, so I’m really not tipping off anything when I tell you the following:

On their first night away, Sophie wanders down past the pool and into the cute little guest cottage, only to be surprised by finding Ethan already there. Maybe it’s the wine they drank after dinner; maybe it’s the grass they smoked after the wine, but suddenly Sophie and Ethan are reconnecting like nobody’s business, and in several positions. After love’s mad fling, Ethan suggests they spend the night in the cottage, rather than the big house. “Sure thing,” Sophie says, and runs to retrieve a sexy nightie or something for what looks to be a night of love.

But when she walks into big house she finds … Ethan asleep on the couch!

Whaddawha?

She wants to know how he managed to beat her back to the house. He wants to know why she’s all sweaty.

A brief fight and they’re back to their old emotionally distant ways. He storms out, deciding to spend the night in the cottage rather than face Sophie’s sour puss for the duration.

Only he finds a calm and serene Sophie waiting for him when he gets there.

The twist of The One I Love is that another couple, who look and talk exactly like Ethan and Sophie, are living in the guest cottage.

A lesser (and less intelligent movie) might have delved into the sci-fi possibilities of such a twist, but this film avoids that trap entirely. Lader is much more interested in examining the relational waves stirred up by these doppelgängers and how the characters navigate this emotional minefield.

It's a shocking moment for Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass).

It’s a shocking moment for Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass).

Ethan2 and Sophie2 turn out to be the ideal married versions of themselves. Whereas the real Ethan has become ironic and detached in his dealings with the real Sophie, Ethan2 is warm and kind, intensely interested in Sophie’s feelings. And Sophie2 is positively June Cleaver-like in the attention she pays to Ethan’s interest and desires.

Shifting into Second 

And at the exact moment when this part of the story’s journey begins to stale, the filmmakers switch gears and the movie becomes something else again. It’s really a rather neat trick how McDowell and Lader manage to stay one step ahead of the audience, parceling out just enough information to keep us hooked but not so much that we lose interest.

Even after the film lays its cards on the table, there’s a lot left for us to decide about what was real and what wasn’t. In an entertainment form which, over the years, has become relentless in dumbing down the story and then beating the audience over its collective heads with a threadbare “point,” the enigmatic, even oblique nature of The One I Love is pretty remarkable.

Of course, all is not completely untroubled in cinema paradise. The filmmakers stumble a bit in the last 10 minutes or so searching for a satisfying climax, which I can’t say they’ve located. On the other hand I’m not sure a movie like this could have a definitive ending. There’s an almost fugue-state quality informing this story and the manner in which it’s told—I think it should drift away out of our consciousness, rather than closing with a bang (however muted).

My biggest regret, and it’s not that big, is that the story is told mostly from the viewpoint of the two Ethans. The real Sophie and especially Sophie2 are given short dramaturgical shrift, and a more balanced approach could have amplified a lot of the drama which Lader leaves untapped.

Moss turns in a couple of compelling performances. Giving her more chances to play the women’s reality, rather than defining them through the men, would have been more fulfilling. Duplass does amazing work finding just the right discordant notes between the Ethans and being able to express so much with the simplest look or gesture.

The One I Love is, ultimately, a character study for two actors (only Danson, as the mysterious therapist, gets any other screen time) and Moss and Duplass are more than up to the challenge of this rewarding Rubik’s Cube of a movie.

At the Regent Square Theater, 1035 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square. Visit Pittsburgh Filmmakers for showtimes and dates.

photo: Pittsburgh Filmmakers

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.