Thursday, September 18, 2014

Blogorium Review: The One I Love

 In the interest of full disclosure, I've had a bad go of it when it comes to "mumblecore." Oh, I've tried, but I usually can't finish a Joe Swanberg movie (as short as they are) - that includes Happy Christmas, 24 Exposures, and Drinking Buddies, which I got the farthest into before getting bored and turning the movie off. So far, the only thing that came out of the "mumblecore" movement I even remotely enjoyed was Adam Wingard's You're Next, which apparently qualifies as "mumblegore" but seems too well scripted to really fit into the "improvisational" filmmaking style.

 This comes up because The One I Love, from first time director Charlie McDowell and first time screenwriter Justin Lader is produced by the Duplass Brothers, they of The Puffy Chair, Cyrus, and Jeff Who Lives at Home. Given the previous paragraph, I'm going to let you guess whether I liked any of those movies. Take your time. Okay, so you're back and if you thought that even the presence of John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill could sway me on Cyrus, nope. Hated it. But I had heard really good things about The One I Love, particularly about the premise, which I'm going to SPOIL the hell out of. If you want to go in knowing nothing, stop here and know that The One I Love is "mumblecore" in the same way that You're Next is, which to me means it isn't. It's a very interesting riff on The Twilight Zone, and I'll leave it at that until you're done.

 Okay, for everybody else, I don't feel bad SPOILING The One I Love at all because you're not more than ten minutes into the movie before the "twist" happens. McDowell is essentially working a variation on the "Two Hander," with Mark Duplass (The League) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) as Ethan and Sophie, a married couple on the rocks. There are trust issues, he's too analytical and she's too judgmental, and even their therapy sessions are largely spent glowering at each other. Their therapist (Ted Danson) recommends a retreat out in the mountains that "renews" relationships, so they agree. The house seems nice, the grounds are pretty swank, and even the guest house is fully furnished.

 And, whenever Ethan or Sophie go into the guest house alone, they meet an idealized version of their significant other waiting inside. After a first night of confused moments, they try to leave, but curiosity gets the better of Sophie and they go back. Ground rules are set, but quickly abandoned, and the longer they spend in the guest house, the stranger things become. The wherefore is never made apparent, but it turns out not to be that important. The way that Sophie and Ethan react to this development is the thrust of The One I Love's narrative, and their character foibles play heavily into what happens next. The intuitive Sophie is more taken with the "other" Ethan, who is more contrite and laid back. Ethan, on the other hand, can't help but over-analyze the situation, and all but rejects the "other" Sophie, for reasons that turn out to be more altruistic than distrusting the situation. (He later tells Sophie that "why would I want some other version of my wife when I know the real you is still out there?")

 There is, it seems, more going on than meets the eye, but it's less important than watching Moss and Duplass interacting with very different versions of their characters (more Duplass than Moss, as the "other" Sophie isn't much of a factor until late in the film) and what it does to their already fractious relationship. Ethan finds himself competing for his wife's affection with, well, himself, only a more appealing version. Out of desperation, he pulls a potentially relationship damaging act of subterfuge, one that comes back to haunt him when they discover that the "other" Ethan and Sophie are able to leave the guest house. Their final night at the house is indeed a tense one, as both Ethans and both Sophies have dinner and attempt to navigate mutual suspicions. And then, near the end, we have some idea why the therapist isn't answering his phone and what purpose these "others" serve. I'll save that for you to find out.

 If this was a largely improvised movie (as per "mumblecore" ethos), it certainly didn't feel like it. Some of the conversations between Moss and Duplass felt a little open ended, but that might have more to do with the ambiguous nature of the situation Ethan and Sophie are in. There's a considerable amount of set-up / payoff in the film, particularly at the end, and while I'd technically classify the film as "science fiction," it's mostly realistic in execution. Since they have to carry the lion's share of the film, Moss and Duplass have a lot of work to do and are always interesting to watch. Duplass, in particular, creates two very different takes on Ethan, who are fundamentally the same person, but whose approaches to life and agendas couldn't be more different. Moss is largely relegated to one Sophie, as we simply don't get a lot of time with her doppelganger, but the way she opens up over the course of the film is something special indeed. Danson's role is essentially a cameo (his wife, Mary Steenburgen*, also has a tiny role as Ethan's mother via voicemail), but his presence looms late into The One I Love.

 Despite my apprehension at the presence of Mark and Jay Duplass producing and the concerns I might be walking into another meandering drama about relationships captured with improvisational, hand-held aesthetics, The One I Love really grabbed me and didn't let go. It's a fun trip back into the Twilight Zone, and that alone would make it worth recommending. Fortunately for you, there's plenty more to enjoy, as long as you enjoy low-fi sci-fi. Don't let the "mumblecore" producing credentials shy you away - this one is worth your time.

* Steenburgen is also McDowell's mother, and Danson his stepfather, for trivia buffs.

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