Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass
We have to move carefully here. Director Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, written by Justin Lader, starts as a modern-day rom-com cut with an acidic bite but segues into surreal, science-fiction territory as the tale progresses. A married couple, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), have hit a serious wall in their relationship. Ethan had an extramarital affair at some point, and the couple are burned out. Their therapist (Ted Danson) offers up a way out of their predicament, when nothing else seems to have helped. The therapist sends them to an idyllic Southern California vacation home in the rural countryside, far away from anyone, far away from the ground-zero of their emotional, personal apocalypse.
When Ethan and Sophie drive out to the countryside, their demeanor immediately changes. They're engaged with one another again and eager to repair the damage. They smile at each other and are attentive to each other, and when they get to the house, they sincerely try to make some magic happen. The first night, they talk and dine and drink wine and then smoke some pot. It's when they discover the guest house that things start to get weird. “Start” being the operable word, since what transpires afterward only takes us down the rabbit hole further. This may be a mangled rom-com, and a very laugh-out-loud one, but it's thoroughly grounded in "The Twilight Zone."
To say anything more about The One I Love's plot would destroy the many surprises in it. McDowell and Lader hit most of the marks incisively, and Duplass and Moss sell the far-fetched, deliriously surreal tale with humanity and commitment. It all works, because the actors, particularly Moss, reach for something real to hang on the increasingly fanciful tale. Lader's script has a lot to owe to the work of one of America's greatest screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman. The One I Love most resembles Kaufman's and Spike Jonze's groundbreaking Being John Malkovich, with its narrative invention and ability always to be a couple of steps ahead of the audience, even when we think we know where the plot is rushing toward the inevitable.
The One I Love stumbles a bit toward its finale, when plot holes are filled too conveniently and the mysteries cleared up in unsatisfactory ways. But the ending scene manages a dark-humored punch, and the movie overall helps prove that science-fiction and fantasy don't always have to rely on special effects and melodrama to deliver the delights of the otherworldly.