Charlie McDowell’s (son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen) debut feature, The One I Love, comes complete with a built-in request from the filmmakers not to divulge its “twist.” Fair enough, but the film’s twist — at least the basics of it — occurs about 15 minutes into the movie. The bulk of the film deals with exploring that twist. While I don’t think that revealing the twist is likely to alter anyone’s take on it, I’ll do my best to honor the request. (The poster provides a vague hint.) I saw the film cold and emerged with mixed emotions. I almost think I might have liked it better if I’d had some idea what I was getting into, but it’s impossible to test that. However, it would have at least kept me from being plunged into wondering how this could be spun out for another 75 minutes — which is, in itself, part of my problem. We have a high-concept premise that can’t really support the running time without talking itself to death or indulging in not-very-successful bedroom farce. And yet, I’m not writing the film off.
On the plus side, the film is generally well made. It looks and feels professional, and while it uses a fair amount of handheld camera, it’s not of the shaky-cam variety. The idea is clever and thought provoking. The setup is almost too perfectly achieved — telescoping what are apparently multiple sessions with a marriage counselor (Ted Danson) into a single flowing event. There are nice touches — comprehensible only after the fact — in the way things are phrased about the results reported from weekend getaways the counselor prescribes for his more difficult cases. Plus, The One I Love contains what is easily my second favorite Mark Duplass performance — a notch above his turn in Your Sister’s Sister (2011) and just below the one in Safety Not Guaranteed (2012). Indeed, it may be his most nuanced performance to date, but if I’m to stay away from the “twist,” you’ll have to see why for yourself. So far, so good.
There is, however, another side to the film that I am not so happy with. The film relies heavily on the two leads, and while Duplass is excellent, I am less sold on Elisabeth Moss. As someone who doesn’t watch TV, I’m not familiar with her work on such shows as Mad Men or The West Wing, so I have no bias there. I have, it seems, seen her in five movies — where I admit she made no impression on me. Here she is essentially 50 percent of the movie. (Apart from Danson, she and Duplass are the only characters in the film, excepting extras in a diner and some voices — including Mary Steenburgen’s — on voice mails.) I will not lay all my misgivings on Ms. Moss, since the writing comes into play here, but she’s not the equal of Duplass — at least for me. It may not help that much of the dialogue appears to have been improvised. (Sometimes it feels a little too much like an acting exercise.) Another downside is that the film relies heavily on your fondness for characters talking about their feelings — and my tolerance for this isn’t great in either drama or real life.
All in all, the film is a little more indie than I’m happy with, and too much an overextension of a slender concept to fully embrace. Essentially, the plot involves a couple, whose marriage is falling apart, going away for a weekend in the country at a large (and largely faceless) house that has a more intimate and personalized guest house. It’s what happens in that guest house that drives the story. And it’s certainly an interesting story that touches on the very essence of relationships and the nature of what happens when the blush of first love (when both people are presenting the best of themselves to the other) fades into the routine of reality. That’s certainly worth exploring, but whether The One I Love entirely succeeds at it is another question. Rated R for language, some sexuality and drug use.