I have kept this review as spoiler-free as physically possible, but I’d like to recommend watching the film without reading a word of this, even if it means less people reading my review.
Decades ago, Ira Levin’s satirical novel The Stepford Wives depicted a world where men are so tired of their feminist or working wives that they choose to replace them with submissive robots who serve as housewives willing to tend to their every need. However average I find the novel, it’s one that forced readers to confront such a speculative reality. It asked the world whether or not the idea of molding your spouse into a submissive being was really all that appealing. Here we are in 2014, with a very different work of art that shares that theme, but explores it further.
With their feature debut, The One I Love, director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader challenge the audience by presenting a new vision of skewed couple interactions. In it, they ask their own version of that age-old question. Would you rather fight for a relationship or simply trade-in your partner for whatever you think the better version of them might be?
It’s tough to discuss The One I Love without revealing any of its secrets, something that it’s filled to the brim with as it twists and turns often. But here’s a quick summary that tells the bare minimum for those still curious to read on (which is basically a minor explanation of the marvelous trailer). Husband and wife, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), take a therapist-assigned weekend away at a vacation home to deal with their marital issues and rekindle their romance. But as they soon realize, there’s more to this marriage counseling session than meets the eye.
After smoking a little weed on their first night together, Ethan and Sophie are confronted with something that anyone in a relationship likely both fears and dreams of: an idealized version of the person they fell in love with. Relationships and how we handle all their ups and downs is a great deal of what this marriage dramedy explores, but it’s presented through a narrative based in psychologically-driven science-fiction rather than melodrama. As such, it proposes a reality that doesn’t exactly provide all the answers and explanations some viewers might long for. But explaining the mechanics of the universe would be a waste of precious time in Lader’s rather tight script, as it’s more dedicated to exploring the heave-ho of a strained relationship.
McDowell drops the audience straight into Ethan and Sophie’s love life, placing them in a therapy session without a bit of preface on their life other than a glimpse at what they consider the peak of their romance. But, as the narrative progresses, more is revealed to the viewer. “I felt like our happiness used to be so easy and there used to be so much of it and now I feel like happiness is something we have to recreate,” Sophie says at the very start. It’s because of the way the film reveals every bit of the people they are that we realize exactly why they’re struggling.
Lader’s script is like a wrapped gift that only reveals another gift and another and another. In fact, I’d be surprised if the film didn’t sprinkle an unholy amount of foreshadowing from the very moment it begins. It practically begs a rewatch, as its as layered a script as it is intriguing and emotional. So much of what is being dealt is fake, but it’s hard not to feel as though it’s all real while experiencing it. But writing as heavy and tricky as this would be nothing if not for the actors taking it into their capable hands.
Moss and Duplass inhabit two characters who genuinely come off as desperate to find some meaning to the romance they once had. But they do so much more than that, each tapping into as wide a range of emotions as you can expect from any one person as is necessary and expected from the roles they’re playing. The actors are just as convincing when they’re the Real Ethan and Sophie as they are when they’re whatever the characters expect the Ideal Ethan and Sophie to be. They deliver the differences between these versions of the same characters in ways both subtle and obvious, whether it’s simply exuding confidence or becoming the equivalent of a Stepford Wife.
Just like The Mamas & the Papas’ cover of “Dedicated to the One I Love” says as it plays over the credits, “Love can never be exactly like we want it to be.” In ways both funny and sad, The One I Love knows and shows that well, addressing exactly how much we seek an escape to dealing with our issues, especially those that force us to confront the one(s) we love.
The One I Love is currently experiencing a limited theatrical release, and is also available for rental and purchase on Amazon Instant Video.
Directed by Charlie McDowell; written by Justin Lader; starring Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss & Ted Danson; 91 minutes.