Wouldn’t it be convenient if your spouse could shed all of his or her annoying habits and live every day as the charming personality with whom you first fell in love? Humans and love being what they are, it’s a wish that is unlikely to be realized – except perhaps in a movie.
In The One I Love, a young couple attempting to recover from a minor infidelity depart on a weekend retreat at the behest of their marriage counsellor. The therapist (a cameo by Ted Danson) sends them to a gorgeous, secluded property in the Californian hills where the stubbornly rationalist Ethan (Mark Duplass) and the sweetly injured Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are given a fantastical second chance at love.
At first blush, The One I Love seems like an example of the small but well-established sentimental-fantasy genre that would include such classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and the various versions of Heaven Can Wait. In 2012, the neatly executed Ruby Sparks suggested it’s a format that can still work its charms and, like Ruby Sparks, this is a romance where metaphor is cleverly made literal: Without giving too much away, let’s just say that this magical place allows each spouse to commune with a perfected version of the other.
Apparently this is a supernatural occurrence – Ethan and Sophie certainly can’t think of any rational explanation. However, scriptwriter Justin Lader, who has a very fine ear for the way contemporary couples communicate, is weaker on plotting and occasionally hints there might be something nefarious but logical going on. The rules of his fantasyland wobble from the magical to the menacing before culminating in one cheesy moment that would not look out of place on Star Trek. That leaves director Charlie McDowell (son of actor Malcolm McDowell and author of the Twitter-feed-turned-book Dear Girls Above Me) with a bit of a conundrum. What kind of movie is this anyway?
Although there are moments when it seems to think it might be a psychological thriller, McDowell mainly directs the film lightly, as a romantic comedy. Duplass, in particular, plays along nicely, offering a strong illustration of the doppelganger metaphor as he deftly switches between the real and rather obnoxious Ethan and Sophie’s softer fantasy version. On the other hand, that stubborn reticence that has always characterized Moss’s work as Peggy Olson on Mad Men does not serve her particularly well here; the much sweeter Sophie just seems rather shallow, the kind of pretty thing who will surely be given a pretty ending.
But that is not where Lader and McDowell are headed. One appreciates their skepticism about pat romances, but once you depart from a genre you have to have strong alternatives to the agreed-upon formats. Here’s a date movie that will neither cozily cheer you nor satisfyingly thrill you, but instead leave you scratching your head.