A number of independent filmmakers, sick to death of every mainstream film being easily described as “[movie from 10 years ago] meets [movie from two years ago]”, find themselves making multiple-genre mashups. Case in point: Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love, which opened at the Tribeca Film Festival last week. It’s funny enough and sexy enough to be described as a romantic comedy; the entire concept is based on a big sci-fi/fantasy twist, and eventually the film matures into a sort of thriller. Plus, Mark and Jay Duplass, the godfathers of so-called mumblecore cinema, are involved both in front of and behind the camera. So The One I Love is a sci-fi, mumblecore sort of romantic comedy thriller … thing. That doesn’t sound too impressive, so try this: The One I Love is among the best films of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are struggling in their marriage. Talking it out with their therapist (a nifty Ted Danson cameo) isn’t really working, so they go on a retreat to a little out-of-the-way resort. The hope is to, in their therapist’s words, “reset the reset button,” and and decide if their relationship is worth saving.
The next paragraph contains a spoiler for something that happens in the first 20 minutes of the movie.
But the resort has a secret: Ethan and Sophie find identical versions of themselves inhabiting in the resort’s guest house. The dopplegangers appear to be perfect spouses in every way, which presents some unique therapeutical opportunities. Of course, therapy is difficult enough when supernatural things aren’t going on, and as with most movies involving supernatural dopplegangers, the duplicates tend to have their own needs and desires.
This film is basically a feature-length demonstration of the greatness of Elisabeth Moss as an actor. Duplass is fine, especially in his willingness to mock himself, but Moss is the star: Sophie is the deeper character of our protagonists, and faux-Sophie becomes the more interesting of the doppelgangers once the third-act twists start flying. More than that, the doubles are not comically “opposite” the original person, so the differences between Moss’ performance are subtle depending on which Sophie that she’s playing.
In fact, those subtle differences are surely McDowell’s entire point. As the film proceeds into the second act, the audience finds itself compelled to wonder whether the people in a given scene are the original Ethan and Sophie, or the new ones. The originals could try to display the same traits that the duplicates do, as they’re not wildly different; there are reasons why they do not, which the audience is meant to consider for themselves.
The only problem is that eventually, the film has to make at least a feint in the direction of explaining where the duplicates came from, and what they want. This is not an existential meditation on the level of an Under the Skin, where leaving some aspects unexplained will only heighten the film’s effect. The One I Love has a mystery narrative that demands to be unpacked, and frankly, that which is unpacked doesn’t make a lot of sense. The film cares very little for its whodunit – as a great final scene demonstrates – but that’s no excuse for the whodunit element to be so awkward.
Still, give McDowell and writer Justin Lader credit for crafting a story that manages to hit many other tones with expert precision. This is a picture which draws laughs exactly when it needs them, gets creepy exactly when it needs to, and still manages to make room for a big romantic moment. Somehow, perhaps as a result of the use of fine actors, it never feels rushed or thrown together. With a slightly better ending, it would have been the best film at Tribeca in a walk; as it is, it’s of far higher quality than the phrase “genre mashup” might imply.
— Mark Young