A pleasure to watch but a challenge to discuss without spoiling a good deal of the fun, “The One I Love” marries Mark Duplass’ skill for incisive relationship comedies with a high concept any Hollywood studio would covet. Boasting spectacular performances from Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a husband and wife on the brink of separation, this incredibly assured directorial debut of Charlie McDowell essentially turns the idea of a two-hander upside down and inside out. Such a smart, crowd-pleasing entertainment deserves a distrib savvy enough to navigate a release without giving away the central twist of the premise in the marketing.
Pic opens with Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie (Moss) seemingly at the end of their rope in couples therapy. The spark they once had is gone, they can’t remember the last time they had sex and, as Sophie shares with their therapist (Ted Danson), happiness has become something they have to re-create from memories of a better past. But even these early scenes hint at something strange at work, as the therapy sessions alternate between what appear to be two different timelines, complete with different wardrobes and slightly different hairstyles for Ethan and Sophie.
The story really kicks in when the couple drive to a nearby vacation home at the urging of their therapist. He swears that struggling couples have had great success rekindling their romance in the secluded locale, and it intially looks like a break from society is exactly what the pair needs. Sophie cooks dinner, they smoke pot and have great conversation. Sophie later wanders over to the quaint guesthouse, where Ethan meets her and they make love. Returning to the main house, Sophie finds Ethan asleep on the couch with no memory of what happened between them. The surreal twists only increase from there, as Ethan and Sophie face reminders of why they originally fell in love and surprising temptations to split up for good.
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Throughout its brisk 90-minute running time, “The One I Love” reinvigorates the romantic-comedy genre with an infusion of sci-fi/fantasy elements and sharp scripting. It’s no coincidence the film features onscreen references to both “The Twilight Zone” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But it is surprising to learn that screenwriter Justin Lader only supplied a 50-page script and suggested dialogue, leaving Duplass and Moss to improvise a large percentage of the lines. Thanks to collaborative rehersals involving McDowell, Lader, producer Mel Eslyn and the actors, their delivery bares none of the telltale signs of performers making it up on the fly (pregnant pauses, fumbling delivery, awkward repetition), and the storytelling is witty, sophisticated and emotionally authentic all the way.
It’s tough to unpack the brilliant work the two stars do here without disclosing plot details better left vague; suffice to say they both create dazzlingly specific characters with great depth and (importantly) humanity. Although audiences may associate Duplass more readily with comedy and Moss with drama — especially given their work on the smallscreen — “The One I Love” breaks down genre barriers and gives both thesps plenty of space to showcase substantial comedic and dramatic chops.
Pic also reps a minor triumph of low-budget ingenuity, as McDowell oversees an impressive tech package. Jennifer Lilly’s editing is perhaps most crucial to making the increasingly complex narrative succeed, while the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans supplies an eerie undercurrent to the action, growing richer as the story unfolds. Theresa Guleserian’s production design plays a key role in differentiating among the minimal locations (basically the main house, the guesthouse and the therapist’s office) and Bree Daniel’s costuming is similarly sly. Visual effects supervisor Stefan Scherperel scores with the film’s most surreal imagery and d.p. Doug Emmett does a solid job of giving the film a dreamlike sheen without revealing too much too soon.
The closing-credits song, “Dedicated to the One I Love” by the Mamas and the Papas, ends things on a pitch-perfect note.