How well can we ever know each other? That’s one of the less interesting questions posed by Charlie McDowell’s willowy and romantic science-fiction two-hander with a Twilight Zone twist about a couple with marriage problems whose sojourn at a therapeutic retreat takes a quirky turn. When the story is fully locked in, it wrestles with some more gripping issues of identity and a Machiavellian spin on relationship dynamics. But all too often, it falls back on easygoing relationship drama that saps the underlying premise of its more meaningful promise.
Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) are one of those movie couples sufficiently terrified of their middle-aged loss of spontaneity that they seek professional help. A troublingly casual therapist (Ted Danson, tack-sharp) tries a few exercises with them and then suggests they try a weekend getaway that he swears other couples in their situation have loved. The getaway turns out to be a sprawling California dream-house garlanded by orange groves and bathed in buttery sunshine. Once there, a long-missing spark seems to flash between them. Before the two were snippy and combative, resentfully backing off into their respective corners for passive-aggressive combat. But within hours they’re giggling and expansive, playing games and treating each other like long-lost best friends.
The audience is clued in to the big reason why Sophie and Ethan are suddenly getting along so well before the characters are. Once that mystery is fully revealed, The One I Love begins to pivot from vaguely mumblecore romantic comedy into darker relationship drama that also uncorks a few knotty metaphysical questions about identity. It would ruin some of the film’s slightly limited appeal to give the central twist away. But suffice it to say that Sophie and Ethan are both faced with a situation wherein they have an opportunity to re-engineer their partner into a more (they think) compatible format.
Moss and Duplass are both perfect and yet problematic for the film. Neither could be accused of Acting in the grand manner, preferring the small gesture and the slow burn. That’s particularly true for Duplass, whose slightly blank everyguy manner practically makes him disappear into the film’s soothing yuppie décor. Moss brings a little more grit to the role, as the clearly more frustrated half; while Ethan is more interested in keeping on as before, Sophie seems perfectly willing to strike a match to their whole relationship. But by never burrowing enough into their characters, Moss and Duplass ensure that an already low-intensity scenario barely keeps a pulse going.
This lack of depth isn’t helped by Justin Lader’s sketchy screenplay. There’s enough good material here to produce a tight and focused half-hour short. But once the conclusion’s twist on a twist is made clear, the film doesn’t seem able to sustain interest in following through on its premise. The result is a promising but disappointingly prototypical example of the new wave of low-key, West Coast-styled, indie sci-fi films like Safety Not Guaranteed (also starring Duplass) where little is at stake and even less is delivered.