The One I Love: Sundance Review

For better and for worse, a shrewd fantasy version of couples therapy.

Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss and Ted Danson star in director Charlie McDowell's debut film.

There is no question that debuting screenwriter Justin Lader has found a novel way to address the eternal issue of fading love and physical attraction within couples over time in The One I Love. Nor can one fault the assured work of first-time feature director Charlie McDowell or the adeptness of co-stars Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass.

But it’s also the case that, on a moment-to-moment basis, this smoothly made film can be incredibly trying, even annoying, to watch, due to the grueling repetitiveness of the scenes and dialogue and the claustrophobia of the paradoxically beautiful setting. Perhaps many will not be bothered by this, in which case a significant audience, perhaps particularly among women, might be flock to this gently fantasy-tilted study of a perennial aspect of long-term relationships. Radius-TWC picked this up at Sundance with an eye to a fall release.

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With thirtysomethings Ethan and Sophie in couples therapy over a presumed infidelity on his part and despairing over their lost ability to have fun (and sex) together, they are offered the chance by their chosen guru (Ted Danson) to “reset the reset button” via a stay at a countryside retreat where he guarantees what they’re missing will be restored.

The place is, in fact, idyllic, a tastefully appointed country-style estate with two houses on it, surrounded by mountains (actually in Ojai), that they seem to have all to themselves.  The place is fully stocked, including with wine and weed, quite the

perfect environs if the desire is to be intimate. Which indeed happens, when Sophie ventures from one house to the next, gets cozy with Ethan, then later returns to the other house to find him asleep there. He can’t remember what just happened, which makes her mad, then the next morning she cooks him bacon, which he hates, setting off more arguments.

The constant opening and closing of doors from one dwelling to another are the trappings of French farce, while the pitched marital misunderstandings produce spirited spats that remind of nothing so much as Lucy and Desi going at it in “I Love Lucy,” except that

they’re not so much funny as aggravating. The two don’t remember anything about their first evening the same way and there are too many instances involving seeming to be in two places at once for any of it to make sense.

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Things continue for a while longer in the same vein, as the husband and wife persist in rehashing what they think did or didn’t happen earlier, with one insisting upon one version of events to the consternation of the other, back and forth and on and on to the point where you feel like you’re stuck in an echo chamber or, more concretely, present at the end game of a marriage. It’s enough to make you want to scream or, better yet, to flee in order to escape this beautifully appointed hell of confusion and sputtering connections.

At a certain point, however, the film kicks into what might, for lack of a better term, be called a soft bump into the realm of Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze-like fantasy, a world that looks just like our own except different—and much more attractively designed and musically enhanced. To reveal just what happens and how would entail an egregious spilling of spoilers. But while a degree of cabin fever persists, the temperature gratifyingly lowers as the filmmakers’s central points take hold about the ability, or inability, to see in your mate what you saw in the very same person years earlier; what

your feelings would be if your loved one went off with a younger version of yourself, and whether it’s possible to rekindle a former level of desire and passion after too many years and bumps in the road.

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These are relevant matters to most people who have been in long relationships and that Lader and McDowell grapple with them so alertly is impressive for filmmakers in their very early thirties. That said, there is little resonance and no real emotion emanating from the relationship. Like the film itself, it seems to exist in a vacuum apart from the dynamics of real life, and certainly without its myriad complications.  This elimination of outside distractions benefits the story by forcing it to concentrate strictly upon what exists, and doesn’t, between Ethan and Sophie, but the lack of context also strips them of their full range as characters.

Duplass and Moss are put to the test to carry the film entirely on their shoulders and unquestionably carry it off; reportedly, the dialogue was roughly half-written and half-improvised. On the other hand, viewers will have widely disparate reactions to spending 90 uninterrupted minutes with these characters.

The production is smooth and beautiful, with McDowell displaying a directorial confidence that belies his beginner status, an accomplished boosted by Doug Emmett’s smoothly flattering cinematography. Musical elements are also shrewd, none moreso than the great use of the Mamas and the Papas’s version of “This Is Dedicated to the One I Love” at the end.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Opens: Autumn 2014 (Radius/TWC)

Production: Duplass Brothers Productions

Cast: Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ted Danson

Director: Charlie McDowell

Screenwriter: Justin Lader

Producer: Mel Eslyn

Executive producers: Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Charlie McDowell, Justin Lader

Director of photography: Doug Emmett

Production designer: Theresa Guleserian

Costume designer: Bree Daniel

Editor: Jennifer Lilly

Music: Danny Densi, Saunder Jurriaans

91 minutes