There’s not much point in trying to review The One I Love without addressing the elephant in the room separating it from other relationship dramedies. For buzz purposes, publicity for the film is playing things close to the vest with regard to an important left turn the story takes within the first half hour. It’s the film’s defining hook, so there’s not much good in trying to talk around it. If you want the spoiler-free one sentence review, here it is: The One I Love is a well-acted look at marital ennui that benefits more than it suffers from a clever, impossible twist. Just calling the inciting incident of The One I Love a twist feels hyperbolic, seeing as there’s not much of a film here without it. All the same, those looking to go in blind can stop reading now.
With the spoiler-averse now sent off to keep themselves company, let’s get down and metaphysically dirty with the game The One I Love is actually playing. Turns out, what’s being pitched as a two-hander is really more of a four-hander. The One I Love takes the unsuspecting story of a struggling married couple trying to reconnect while at a vacation home, and then doubles down on the theme of self-examination by bringing in doppelgängers for the pair through mysterious, mind-bending means.
The husband and wife in question are Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), an upper class California couple that’s slipping further apart the longer they stay together. Introduced recollecting their meet-cute while in couples therapy (Ted Danson pops in as their encouraging, but seemingly daft councillor), the long tail of Sophie and Ethan’s romance hasn’t been kind to either partner. Though both claim to be making an effort to get things back on track, there’s a gulf in their relationship that’s widened in the wake of a recent indiscretion by Ethan.
With all other attempts at reconciliation failing to keep this marriage one mention of divorce away from completely dissolving, Ethan and Sophie’s therapist sends them on a weekend getaway to a palatial orchard property out in the mountains. Away from other distractions, the two finally have the chance to get reacquainted. With a little help from wine and weed, the tensions that have dominated their relationship for years finally start to melt away. After Sophie physically reconnects with Ethan in the property’s guesthouse, it seems like the miracle vacation cure was all they needed.
Problem is, Sophie wasn’t actually sleeping with Ethan. Her Ethan, that is. After a little bit of psycho-comic misunderstanding, Ethan and Sophie realize that when either enters the guesthouse, they’ll find it inhabited by a duplicate of their partner. If Ethan goes in, there’s a different, but identical Sophie waiting for him inside, and vice-versa. Well, mostly identical. Physically, each version of Sophie and Ethan are the same, but how they present themselves is a night and day difference. Guesthouse Ethan is funny, secure, and always knows the right thing to say. He even does sit-ups. Impostor Sophie is equally “improved,” sporting a showier hairstyle, laughing at all of original Ethan’s jokes, and letting him eat the food original Sophie has been denying him.
Is the guesthouse magic, or something out of science fiction? Even on this, the true Sophie and Ethan can’t agree. Acknowledging the potential danger of the physics-defying situation, the two let their curiosity get the better of them anyway. The first rule established about whatever force is at play here is that only one person can be in the guesthouse with their Stepford partner at any time. It’s an effective conceit, as the duplicates help Ethan and Sophie clarify their feelings for one another by throwing them into a situation riff with emotional ambiguity. Is this alternate Ethan Sophie’s memory of her own, an idealized version of him, or something else entirely? Whatever the answer, the clones, and the film, aren’t quick to tell.
The One I Love succeeds when using its otherworldly premise to let relationship hypotheticals play out practically. When you marry someone, are you devoting yourself to their perfections or their faults? Is a relationship stronger with a pecking order, or when shared amongst equals? The intentionally universal banality of Sophie and Ethan’s problems isn’t all that interesting, but Moss and Duplass expertly hit every note required of their multiple incarnations.
Unfortunately, the film’s duplicity is a neat trick that’s not built for extended exploration. The more original Ethan’s insecurities lead him to investigate the phenomena, the shakier the film’s treatment of its core relationship and hook becomes. As metaphor made literal, the existence of the Uber Ethan and Uber Sophie leads the film to a couple big laughs and moments of insight. But director Charlie McDowell, and writer Justin Lader let the film go soft in the third act by choosing an unsatisfactory explanation for all that’s going on instead of none at all. In doing so, the film adopts Ethan’s point of view too strongly, and The One I Love becomes less about a troubled marriage than it is about one man’s side of it.
All the same, the supernatural pull of the guesthouse and The One I Love is hard to resist. Despite the twist ultimately proving as problematic as it is thought-provoking, the film does a better job than most romantic dramedies at letting the screen act as a funhouse mirror instead of just a window.
Ambition trumps answers in The One I Love, thanks to a killer hook that consumes the film, for better and worse.