There is something slightly subversive and satisfyingly spot-on when a movie about love and marriage turns on a solitary detail.
In The One I Love, starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as sparring spouses, basically it all comes down to the bacon. Who loves it and who loathes it matters in director Charlie McDowell’s assured directing debut. If you follow the bacon, the mystery is solved, the truth is revealed, a concession is made, a deal with the devil, perhaps, is struck.
But there is so much more than the bacon bits. Screenwriter Justin Lader has a go at any number of movie conventions. Sci-fi and couples therapy become strange twisted sisters in the process.
At the most fundamental level, the plot circles around a marriage in crisis, following Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie (Moss) as they struggle to work though Ethan’s cheating. No details are provided, but like much about the movie, the very grayness of the area is the significant part. If anything, McDowell is as intrigued with the metaphysics of what might be possible as he is with the realities of ordinary existence.
When their therapist (Ted Danson) has run through his regular bag of reconnection tricks, he suggests a weekend getaway at a beautiful vacation retreat. The property is secluded, there are grounds to wander, a pool to dive into, a main house and guesthouse, all at their disposal.
Though it does not play out as simplistically as this, the conflict turns on where Sophie and Ethan are now in their relationship – roughed up and bruised – and where they were at the beginning, the honeymoon phase. The dissonance between those earlier, better selves and the people they’ve become is the major chord the filmmakers play: Which of those selves the other would rather love is the lingering question.
The challenge for both the movie and its stars is exactly how to get at that discord. Moss and Duplass are excellent at it. Great at bringing their more playful, loving, earlier selves to life, equally good at exposing their irritated, not so forgiving sides.
What you never doubt for a moment is that they are a couple. Duplass has made being one half of a relationship into something of an improvised art form. Whether in his own films or someone else’s, the actor always seems at his most comfortable when playing off the emotions of one significant other after another. Even with the film’s vagaries, The One I Love is very much in the actor’s wheelhouse.
For Moss the challenge is not merely how to play Sophie but how to erase all traces of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, whose ambition and insecurities the actress has portrayed so masterfully for years. It’s not that Moss hasn’t done other films along the way, but The One I Love is so concentrated on the characters that there is nowhere to hide. Sophie, in all of her shades, is softer, more emotionally vulnerable that Peggy, and it is a treat to watch the actress wear a very different skin.
McDowell, who is best known for turning his website and tart Twitter feed into the bestselling book Dear Girls Above Me, mirrors that sense of a somewhat cynical reality in the film. A fan of Duplass’ free-form filmmaking, McDowell leans heavily on improvisation. It gives rawness to the arguments and a casualness to the lighter moments that keep you connected even when the psychological corridors the film starts traveling get increasingly convoluted.
The trick of the film is the way McDowell must move the characters and their issues between the two states of consciousness. In the beginning, the still-at-odds Sophie and Ethan argue in the main house and make up in the guest house and, then like everything else in the film, the rules change.
The house is spacious, slightly cold; you feel the couple’s distance, director of photography Doug Emmett pulling back to enhance it. The guesthouse is smaller, more intimate and increasingly surreal. Emmett shifts to a spherical lens to better capture the social and emotional distortion unfolding there.
Though the indie falls short of its grandest ambitions, it is inventive in constructing its conceits. As to Moss and Duplass? It’s hard not to love them – for better or worse.
Cast: Mark Duplass, Elizabeth Moss, Ted Danson, Marlee Matlin.
Director: Charlie McDowell.
Screenwriter: Justin Lader.
A Radius-TWC release. Running time: 91 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Shores