A Look Back: “The One I Love”.
If confronted with the decision to choose between the flawed, human, warts-and-all version of your significant other, or an idealized version of that person who possessed none of your lover’s shortcomings or defects, who would you choose? It’s a deeply serious existential query, and the answers we choose to give may reveal disturbing truths about our utmost wants and desires as human beings.
That’s the narrative engine that drives the creepy high-concept couples comedy “The One I Love”, although this nervy character study ultimately raises more questions then it answers. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, though watching it, one wonders if the film’s tonal murkiness is done intentionally: to mirror the fragmented and noncommittal emotional states of its characters, or whether it’s simply the result of directorial indecision.
Mark Duplass and the wonderful Elizabeth Moss star as Ethan and Sophie, a hip young couple who are going through a rough patch when the film begins. In the early scenes, we see them in therapy sessions, discussing each other’s drawbacks and what the other one can work on. Attentive viewers will take notice of the character’s change in clothing, indicating several sessions over a span of time. Their droll therapist (Ted Danson, in a cameo) recommends a remote spa resort where, he says, some of his patients have come back feeling “renewed”, although he neglects to include the word “feeling” in his statement. To the ears of this frustrated couple, it sounds like an offer too good to pass up. To the ears of the attentive viewer, we know something strange is already afoot.
When Sophie and Ethan arrive at the inviting spa grounds, they are shocked when they discover a strange guesthouse on the property. As if that last bit wasn’t surprising enough, the guesthouse is actually occupied by two flawless identical versions of… Ethan and Sophie. They are the sanitized, perfected versions of the warring couple: New Sophie is almost impossibly patient and understanding where old Sophie committed the unpardonable sin of (gasp) standing up for herself. New Ethan, meanwhile, lacks Old Ethan’s passive-aggressive tendencies and humorless resentment. And yet there’s something undeniably sinister about the doppelganger’s affectless demeanors and bland proclamations of kindness. Is this what we want when we say we’re looking for love?
Practically none of the fault of “The One I Love” rests on the shoulders of its performers. Duplass oscillates adeptly between his typically affable hipster schlub and a terrifying variation on the all-accepting new-age dweeb, and he actually does much of the heavy lifting in the movie’s bizarre final act. Unsurprisingly, it’s Moss who gets to the film’s all-too-buried heart of darkness. There’s real heartbreak in her eyes in the film’s opening sequence, and yet as her character finds herself drawn into the arms of her partner’s idealized self, Moss reveals a gift for saying one thing while unmistakably, devastatingly, meaning quite the opposite. She played a darker twist on this character in Alex Ross Perry’s staggering “Queen of Earth” and she’s quickly morphing into one of the most gifted actresses in her age range.
“The One I Love” raises all sorts of kinky, unsettling questions about the way we see our partners, but as a dramatic exercise, it overstays its welcome. One can imagine it working beautifully as a tense, controlled short film that focuses on a small set of people in a claustrophobically contained space. The script… well, it’s a fusion of heady, brain-boggling science fiction conceits, the kind so often executed peerlessly by the likes of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman but delivered in the shaggy key of Mumblecore; that which is usually typical of the films starring and sometimes directed by Mr. Duplass. Duplass and his brother Jay have perfected their unique form of human comedy with their masterful HBO show “Togetherness” and underrated chamber pieces like “Cyrus” and “The Puffy Chair”, but since neither he nor his brother are in the director’s chair for “The One I Love,” the movie floats in a curiously neutral zone. The movie flirts with raw, disturbing material while refusing to commit to the ugliness of its story, which is also problematic because Moss and Duplass are both such intrinsically warm and likeable performers that casting them as knotted-up balls of jealousy and aggravation seems somewhat counterintuitive.
One can’t help but wonder what shattering effect that this kind of risky material could have had were it trimmed down to something more compact, instead of wandering in a garden of feature-length muddle. The film’s score — a plucky rendition of whimsical Jon Brion strings that turns and curdles, like old milk, halfway through the film — is also one of its major assets and for a film that was shot on a shoestring budget, the film’s look is stylish and understated. “The One I Love” boasts a one-of-a-kind logline and two sympathetic and well-observed lead performances, but ultimately loses its focus in detailing the strange and frightening journey to a relationship’s logical end point.