Last week I did a show about two films featuring doubles, look-alikes. This week I went to see a new film and—wouldn’t you know—it was about doubles. I have no explanation for that, but I will say that The One I Love, an independent film written by Justin Lader and directed by Charlie McDowell, gives an interesting new twist to the old theme.
Ethan and Sophie, played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, are a struggling married couple, whom we first meet in therapy, bemoaning the usual problems of couples who have been married a few years—a drop in romantic excitement, irritation at qualities that used to seem attractive, and most seriously, an episode of cheating on Ethan’s part. The therapist—Ted Danson doing a cameo—proposes that they spend a few days together at a private country getaway that he knows about, where they can be alone together in a beautiful setting and reconnect. They take this advice, and on the first evening they’re already feeling hopeful. Sophie notices a guest house on the property and wanders over there to explore. Ethan shows up and turns on the charm, with the result, a marvelous evening of fun and lovemaking. Next morning he suggests that they spend the day there, and she goes over to the main house to get her stuff. There she finds Ethan asleep, and when asked, he says he has no memory of having sex with her the night before. That of course ends in a fight, and then it’s Ethan’s turn to explore the guest house, where he encounters Sophie, friendly and forgiving, and delightfully serving him breakfast with bacon, a food he knows that she doesn’t like.
The two of them soon figure out that something very weird is happening. Their exact doubles are living in the guest host—the joke being that these versions are much closer to the ideal of what they wish their spouse could be. This notion of a conflict between the actual flawed human being you’re married to, and the marvelous loving partner that you think he or she could be with just a little effort, drives the film, and the many humorous and sometimes painful variations on this problem are drawn out to great effect. The strengths here are Lader’s script, which is great at depicting the closeness, the banter, and also the pettiness of a couple’s daily interactions; and the two leads who have really good chemistry. And their performances are even more impressive considering that they’re in effect playing four characters. I have to single out Mark Duplass as Ethan, especially. The contrast he creates between the jealous, defensive, somewhat nerdy and awkward husband, and the loving, relaxed, emotionally available guy in the guest house, is really funny.
The picture eventually tries to establish a kind of conspiracy theory basis for its plot, which makes absolutely no sense. I think it’s unnecessary, but luckily it’s treated as a throwaway, a parody of the usual mind-bender plot twists you get in lesser movies. Overall, as an allegory The One I Love works well—a humorous yet darkly intuitive take on the dilemmas in long-term relationships.