Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love is a cross between a romantic comedy and an episode of The Twilight Zone. It combines a heady premise with effortless realism, to the point where anyone in a relationship will see themselves in the two main characters. McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader take the material seriously, accepting its insanity at face value, which means their premise takes them to dark, Neil Labute-style territory (I mean that as a complement). Despite bland characterizations, this is a scathing examination at how all relationships experience atrophy.
At this point, I should probably warn you that I’m going to talk about the premise. The PR team behind the movie have gone through great pains to avoid discussing the premise (unlike most trailers, the one below gives away nothing). It’s unclear whether this is a gimmick or maybe the premise is too difficult to communicate in a trailer, but there’s no way to talk about The One I Love without discussing what happens in the first act.
At the suggestion of their therapist (Ted Danson), Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are at a couple’s retreat in California. The property is huge and they’re the only ones there, so after some exploring, Ethan uncovers something weird about the guest house. When Ethan enters the house, he’s encountered by an idealized version of his wife. This is not literally his wife, although he’s slow to figure out. The house functions like a parallel universe of sorts: as long as Ethan or Sophie enter by themselves, they’re free to interact with the fake spouse, who unfailingly do and say the right thing. Ethan’s idealized Sophie is more forgiving and sexier, while Sophie’s idealized Ethan is athletic and communicative.
After the Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity, Lader’s script focuses on the moral quandary of the guest house. If Ethan sleeps with fake-Sophie, is it cheating? What if Sophie prefers fake-Ethan over the real thing? Ethan and Sophie are intelligent and are quick to see the thorniness of this situation, so they lay out some ground rules. McDowell and Lader have fun with how the rules are broken (or not), and make sure they do not judge their characters. While the motivations grow increasingly complex, The One I Love relies on careful viewing and subtle differences to keep everything clear. This kind of movie demands engagement and intelligence.
Moss and Duplass have a ball with these roles. Although the guest house helps, we wouldn’t need it to distinguish between the real Ethan/Sophie and the fake one. Whether it’s how the characters carry themselves or speak, the actors are subtle with their dual roles. By the time things start to get creepy toward the end, there is even a little understated menace to the real and fake versions. The only issue, and it’s a significant one, is how the script denies Duplass and Moss a complete personality. We never learn about them, just how they feel about each other. They’re avatars, nothing but a generic couple, and absence of a clear personality betrays the thoughtfulness and humor that went into other parts of the script. Maybe Lader thought specificity would be too much with such a weird premise. The tension wanes as the novelty wears thin, but at least there’s plenty to think about.
Marriage and long-term relationships require a million little acts of tolerance or forgiveness. There is simply no way to spend a lot of time with one person, and not find them a little annoying. The constant act of forgiveness and tolerance is one way to define love: it is what helps us put up with spouse’s endless bullshit. The One I Love knows that no union is perfect, and that there is a fantasy of our partner that we’ll never get back. If anyone thinks the movie is cynical, then they (probably) haven’t been in a long-term relationship yet.