I doubt I will laugh out loud more at a film this year. Charlie McDowell’s couples therapy session par excellence featuring a very game cast of two, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, made me smile so hard at times my face actually hurt. I burned fucking calories with the enjoyment of this movie. The One I Love, contains enough insight and humour (not to mention, utter engagement) in its neo-Twilight Zone execution, that you may never have to visit the self-help section of the bookstore, ever. This is the mandatory date movie of the year.
Sophie and Ethan are several years into their marriage, still without kids, and are more content to follow the usual rhythms and patterns established over the years. This is to the point where they attempt to recharge their batteries by re-creation of positive prior romantic experiences in their more whimsical youth. They are desperately looking to find the original spark in their relationship, and it comes, oddly enough, in the form of a recommendation from their therapist. “I’ve sent a lot of couples there, and they come back…renewed,” a country retreat doesn’t sound the least bit ominous coming from the lips of a snowy haired Ted Danson, but Charlie Kauffman rules are in play here. Serious mayhem goes down.
The guest house at this retreat has some rather unique properties that I will not spoil — the joy is in the discovery of exactly what is happening in the comforting and blandly mundane space. Unfortunate that such a memorable film gets the unmemorable moniker of The One I Love. A better title would be the pun-ish double meaning of “The Guesthouse,” which I can only surmise was already taken by another, more inferior movie. I digress.
The myriad ways Sophie and Ethan approach their strange set of options prove a deep silver-mine of opportunities to explore the foibles of men and women, Mars and Venus, logic and emotion, fantasy and reality. Role-playing gets externalized and folded to the point where I’m not sure what the better half of a double bill for this film would be, Linklater’s Before Midnight, or Polanski’s Carnage, maybe even Cronenberg’s The Brood.
Duplass and Moss have exceptional movie-chemistry, and the subtlety of body language, costume details and other ‘clever audience cues’ are richly fulfilling to observant viewers. Even if you get ahead of the film, and you probably will, it is the journey, not the destination. Parsing the details remains secondary to all the different ideas of how people are both alone and together in any relationship; whether in a phase that is rewarding, or anxious, or petty and broken; what we see in someone else, what we want to see, what we even accept what we are seeing. And that we will be different people as time moves on is inevitable, hilariously so. The rules of what exactly entails ‘cheating’ on your spouse have never been more difficult to navigate.
In either case, the truism here is that either member of the couple cannot help but fuck with it; it being the nature of the beast, for better or worse, richer or poorer, and all that. Watching Ethan and Sophie fail time and again to ‘accept the mystery’ of their relationship and circumstance is, for the viewer with a certain disposition, a joy. The One I Love somehow manages to riff on Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with only a single couple, but still get at the ‘burned out version’ and ‘naive fresh version’ from Nicols’ film, that only McDowell’s special premise (the guest house) could make possible.
The film is a trust exercise that goes off the rails with intelligence and care, every detail just so, every revelation hilariously true. One minor nitpick involving a bit of unnecessary exposition via computer screen is easily forgivable when everything else is this fun. Suffice it to say, it’s going to be an interesting car ride home, whether you are just dating or married for decades. I wish I could say more. I feel this movie should be studied by genre fans and psychiatrists in equal measure. I wish all relationship movies, from rom-coms to art house dramas, were this smart.