First time screenwriter, Justin Lader eccentrically explores the complexities of a long term relationship and puts a bizarre, sci-fi-ish twist on the idea of couples therapy in The One I Love, assuredly directed by Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm), also a first timer, whose cool capacity for shifting tones makes him a contender for debut director of the year.
The film opens with Ethan (Mark Duplass) trying in vain to recreate the moment he first met and fell in love with Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) on their wedding anniversary. Sneaking into a stranger’s house and diving into their pool like a couple of kids, their passion is not re-charged as it was the night they were chased away by the owner. Disappointedly this time, they realize no one’s home, a situation that sums up their souring marriage.
Desperate to fix things with his estranged wife to who he was unfaithful, Ethan jumps at their therapist’s (Ted Danson) suggestion of a weekend at a countryside estate where he’s assured they’ll be able to stoke the embers of their love for one another.
So far, so mublecore. Both the story and execution of the set-up has a distinct whiff of Your Sister’s Sister about it, which also starred Duplass. And when they get to their retreat, it’s like a glossier version of Drinking Buddies (which similarly went off into nature), with lots of snuggling, joint smoking, and tossing grapes into each other’s mouths. It looks like things between Ethan and Sophie are getting back to the way they were after they make love in the guesthouse, only for Sophie to briefly return to the main house and find Ethan passed out on the couch with no memory of them having had sex.
They’ve not arrived in some alternate dimension as far as either of them can tell, but through some cosmic aberration, the guesthouse has brought with it some rather unconventional guests… themselves. Or rather, better versions of themselves, “20% cooler and 20% more emotionally mature.” Sophie having unknowingly cheated on Ethan with Ethan is freaked out at first, until she persuades him that this is a good way for them to get back in touch with what attracted them to each other in the first place.
This experiment proves to be a test of their loyalty and trust, as they can only go into the guesthouse with their alternate other half one at a time, the doors locking behind them as if by magic. With ground rules in place (no sex, no spying), Ethan gets to know guesthouse Sophie, a completely accepting, perma-smile housewife who no longer loathes him when he eats bacon, and Sophie gets acquainted with guesthouse Ethan, who’s ditched the bookish specs, got himself sexier beach hair, paints portraits of his wife and knows exactly what to say to make Sophie feel like she can trust him again.
Elizabeth Moss is terrifically torn as a wife whose mind is operating on two levels at once. She’s come here to try and forgive her husband but can’t help falling for a man with whom she could conceivably start over. Ethan’s ‘other’ wife has exactly the opposite effect, her always happy demeanour a visible reminder of what he destroyed when he cheated on her. Given the out there premise, there’s a wonderfully believable, controlled exasperation in Duplass’ performance, that panicked feeling of slowly losing Sophie the more time he lets her spend in the guesthouse and having to to hold it down and act normally whenever he’s around her.
The sense of time ticking down is shrewdly conveyed in the score, by putting a metronome up front in the mix which is backed by bells and whistles to indicate the schizoid reality break Ethan and Sophie are dealing with and that time is out of whack. It’s a kookily expressive soundtrack reminiscent of Jon Brion’s Punch Drunk Love, and after Martha Marcy May Marlene, Play and Enemy, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans have now proven themselves to be the most exciting new co-composers on the scene.
The only two actors on screen, Moss and Duplass mange to make gloomy sentiments lively, even as their characters trade off regrets about what happened their relationship. Neither performance falls prey to the wackiness of the scenario in which Ethan and Sophie find themselves, striking the perfect balance of acknowledging the character’s hurt feelings as real, while also treating them flippantly enough to make us laugh.
As a meditation on how easily we hurt the ones we love and never say the things we know we ought to, credit to writer Justin Lader for painting man and wife as equally pained and not valorising one over the other, and to director Charlie McDowell for making the film so much more fun than the narrative direction in the final third might suggest. It’s easy to engage with and be entertained by Duplass’ energised anxiety, pelting along at high speed from the main house to the guesthouse for fear of being caught spying on his wife through the window. This builds up the mass hysteria of farce that often carries the film along on a wave of audience laughter, but never at the expense of the guilt and grief that motivates Ethan’s hysterical behaviour.
Tightly constructed but brilliantly bonkers, The One I Love is the best big screen episode of The Twilight Zone since The Box.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on April 27, 2014