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December 13, 2014

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Review: The One I Love

 Rob hasn't seen a film waste this strong a premise in a long time.

Marriage is often incorrectly thought to be the ultimate consequence of a passionate love affair. The wiser among us know that flames that bright rarely burn for long, and so a rational approach to any long-term commitment is built on fearful trepidation. By what criteria do we judge our potential mates? Do we marry for love or for money? For convenience? Out of boredom? And so despite our best efforts, we often find ourselves where we started: relying on our guts and passions. It just feels better. It's the fault of pop culture, of course. Fractured, realistic romances aren't entertaining. No one wants to see Jack and Rose bicker and argue their way though their fifth year of marriage, so their affair aboard the Titanic is ill-fated and brief. It's about allowing the audience to project themselves onto the lovers onscreen. It's why the best romances end with the kiss. Starting something new is a hell of a lot of fun. Keeping it going is more difficult. 

Such is the central theme of Charlie McDowell's The One I Love. Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are Ethan and Sophie, Married Couple. They're educated, complicated, and stuck in a rut. Things have gone stale. Ethan's admitted to an affair. "We've tried everything," they lament. Their therapist (Ted Danson), stunned by their lack of compatibility (which he hilariously determines when they fail to strike harmonious notes on the piano) encourages them to take a weekend trip to a secluded country getaway. Said getaway consists of a main house, some beautiful gardens, and a guest house in the back (remember that last part). They could certainly do a lot worse. Inspired by their romantic surroundings (and maybe a bit by the wine and pot), the pair quickly make with the sexy and it seems all is not lost after all. They stumble around the grounds and fall asleep in separate (but equally blissful) hazes.

Not so fast, kids: The next morning, they have conflicting memories of the night's events. Was there sexy time or no? Where's the wine bottle? Hang on. Did Sophie cook Ethan bacon for breakfast? She hates when he eats bacon. And therein lies the rub: Hidden inside the guest house are two dopplegangers who reveal themselves to Ethan or Sophie whenever one of them enters. The doubles are, as Ethan would later comment, "about twenty percent cooler" than their real-life counterparts. They're prettier, smarter, and more accommodating. Ethan Number Two paints portraits of Sophie and doesn't wear glasses. Sophie Number Two cooks breakfast and wears makeup. The film presents an interesting question here: Are these the people Sophie and Ethan wish they were, or the people they want each other to be? 

Here's where The One I Love gets Charlie-Kaufman-weird: They decide (after agreeing to some ground rules) to play along, taking turns spending time with their spouse's double. Screenwriter Justin Lader strikes gold here because they're essentially getting to interact with an idealized version of the person they married. It also allows them to take chances and explore insecurities: Sophie asks Ethan Number Two why he had an affair. He answers candidly and honestly, free of all the guarded cynicism that plagues the real Ethan. It's just the answer that Sophie has always wanted. She cries. Kisses him. Now we have a problem. She begins sneaking away to see Better Ethan and breaks almost of all of the aforementioned ground rules. Ethan Prime steams with jealousy and decides this stopped being fun a long time ago.

Unfortunately, this is also where the film completely falls apart. The One I Love fails to competently address or explore any of the relationship dynamics it introduces. We cut away from Sophie's interesting development to watch Ethan fumble around with his cell phone. The characters affect very little change and seem to learn nothing at all. The doubles, self aware toward the end of the film, reveal that their transformation into Ethan and Sophie represents a kind of purgatory, and warn that a magic force field (I am not kidding) prevents any more than two of the four from leaving the resort alive. On could say that this represents the claustrophobia of a stale relationship. Others might say it's a lazy plot mechanic bred from indecision or apathy. Regardless, the film takes a bizarre turn and we're forced to watch the four of them play board games and bicker at each other while Better Ethan gives a half-baked and uninteresting explanation for the phenomenon. The film doesn't quite have the guts to take on the sci-fi elements it introduces, and takes the "what does it matter?" approach instead (which works in a film like Looper, but fails miserably here). The two best-suited for escape are eventually tasked with finding a way to do so together. It could be an interesting statement about the compromises we make and the way we pick pieces of each other apart in an effort to find the whole (as in Her and Gone Girl). Instead, Ethan Prime's decisions reflect absolutely no character growth and he only realizes the gravity of his actions in the closing moments of the film (those who argue that he made the choice subconsciously can get back to me when they find a leg to stand on). It's profoundly disappointing to see an interesting character piece abandoned for kitschy metaphysics.

Some positives: Elisabeth Moss is absolutely captivating. Let's hope she decorates the mantlepiece this award season. Charlie McDowell also avoids some first-time director pitfalls, which is especially notable in a talky indie like this. He never gets too showy, relying on simple set-ups and intimate cinematography. Put simply? It's just fine. It could have been much better. 


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