Sunday, August 31, 2014

The One I Love (**)

Directed by Charlie McDowell


Outside of their breakout hit from 2005, The Puffy Chair, the Duplass brothers' films have always felt like high concepts searching for a meaning. The plots and scripts are tight and the performances are inspired, but the substance behind it all is fleeting and unremarkable. For The One I Love, the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, are only listed as producers. The director is first-timer Charlie McDowell who, with one film, shows that he already has a profoundly more astute cinematic eye and attention to visual detail that the Mumblecore legends never really had. The script, written by Justin Lader, defies reality in ways that the Duplasses have never dared to do - a stab at Charlie Kaufman that's just unique enough to not feel completely derivative. And yet, the film still feels like the air has been let out. For all its zaniness, what is The One I Love actually getting at? The film's main conceit has been held so tightly under wraps, and all reviews have followed the filmmaker's wishes of keeping the main twist a secret. It's an interesting marketing ploy that inspires curiosity but also requires cooperation from others, and surprisingly The One I Love has gotten that cooperation. But with all this budding interest, can the film hold itself up under the scrutiny?

Mark Duplass, himself, stars as one of the two leads, Ethan. His marriage to Sophie (the consistently tremendous Elisabeth Moss) is quickly deteriorating after he was caught in an infidelity. The formerly loving couple now nag at each other with ferocity at couples therapy sessions hosted by a rather demure therapist (played by Ted Danson). The therapist notices the circular nature of their arguments and offers them a last-stitch idea to save their marriage. He gives them keys to a getaway home in the woods where he has sent several couples in the past. All of the couples have returned from this retreat renewed in their love and the therapist hopes that Ethan and Sophie can continue that trend. They accept his offer and head for the home to spend a romantic weekend together. The house is beautiful in a modest way, the cabinets filled with impressive china and the shelves chock-full of a variety of books (I noticed several Clive Cussler novels sitting next to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's autobiography - the home's identity as muddled as the film's). The eat dinner and share a joint and spend what is ultimately a pleasurable first night together. The home also has a small guest house near the pool and when Sophie enters it to explore, that's when The One I Love's more fantastical side shows itself and the therapist's suggested weekend tends to take a more sinister turn.

What happens inside the guest house is the lynchpin to everything that is happening in the film, but it's purpose inside the film raises larger questions. Because so many reviews have chosen not to mention this big twist, it also conveniently allows them not to mention the several gaping plot holes that this twist leaves behind. To be sure, this film does have a clever idea, but this idea doesn't really have much of a point - or at least, the film does a pretty poor job of explaining to the audience what that point is. What I did enjoy was watching Elisabeth Moss perform another role with the wonderful versatility she has brought to her brilliant television work like Mad Men and the grossly under-watched Top of the Lake. Her work here is limited by a script that doesn't see her character as much more than a maddening harpy who just can't get over the fact that her husband slept with somebody else, but we can see the moments where she is making something whole out of this character. And while Duplass does an admirable job in the role, next to Moss his performance always seems to feel pedestrian (when Mad Men is back on the air, the same thing will happen to Jon Hamm every single week). The fact that McDowell took on such an ambitious story for his first film is a good sign, and it's also good that he has a fundamental understanding of the formal elements of filmmaking (unlike his producers), but this film felt too high-end without any real punch; a film about marriage that seems to be written by young men who have never been married. With time, he may know how to tell this kind of story stronger.

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