The dark insecurities that reside inside even the happiest of marriages—issues of trust and fading passion—are given playful yet thoughtful treatment in The One I Love, a comedy-drama in which a couple learns more about each other than maybe they should. Strong performances from Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are the highlight of a movie that may make married people nod in recognition but also shudder a little, too.
The problem with discussing The One I Love, however, is that a crucial plot point that occurs somewhat early on shouldn’t be spoiled. So let us say this: Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie (Moss) are a Los Angeles married couple whose relationship is in serious trouble. Because of an unnamed mistake Ethan made a few years ago, they’ve been drifting apart, although they’re still committed enough to one another to see a therapist (Ted Danson) to work through their issues. Frustrated that he can’t help them bridge their divide, the therapist suggests they go to a secluded vacation home for a weekend to rekindle their love for one another.
At first, this retreat proves successful, as Ethan and Sophie feel more relaxed and connected than they have in years. But then a problem arises: Each of them is having a wonderful time, and yet the other spouse doesn’t recall part of their shared experiences at this fantastic secluded home.
The reveal of that mystery powers the rest of The One I Love, which means that any further comments must be couched in generalities so as not to ruin anything. But it’s safe to reveal that director Charlie McDowell (author of Dear Girls Above Me) and screenwriter Justin Lader have managed to upend a few romantic-drama clichés to find new ways to express how none of us really knows our spouse—or ourselves, for that matter.
Though principally a comedy-drama, The One I Love does dip its toe into other genres, including science fiction (or, depending on how you view the unfolding events, horror), and McDowell (in his feature debut) proves himself up to the challenge of juggling potentially contradictory tones. This also goes for his two leads. Duplass is perhaps best known now for his broad comedic work on the sitcom The League, but he’s been a skillful dramatic actor in movies like Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister. The One I Love offers him one of his most complex roles, forcing him to play a good man in the midst of an unexpected transformation. Moss’s role isn’t as overtly demanding, but she’s excellent at suggesting Sophie’s bitter resignation, illustrating how the lingering pain of Ethan’s past mistake still wounds her.
For all the deftness of the movie’s early twist—its ability to play into any couple’s fears about whether they would have gotten married all over again if they knew then what they know now—The One I Love does start to drag in its third act as the filmmakers introduce an additional twist. From there, this movie about the fragility of commitment takes on a darker, more sinister vibe that the storytelling can’t quite support. Plot machinations start to trump theme, and the script’s teasing intellectual implications fall by the wayside. Even then, though, The One I Love course-corrects before the finale, in which the movie returns to its central question: Who is that person sleeping next to me? Maybe sometimes it’s best not to know.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Charlie McDowell
Writer: Justin Lader
Starring: Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ted Danson
Release Date: Screening in the Premieres section at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival